Vatican City — Christians are suffering the same "savage attacks" once suffered by Jews, Pope Francis told a delegation of prominent Jewish leaders, according to the head of the World Jewish Congress.
Ronald S. Lauder led a delegation of 40 Jewish leaders who met Francis at his Santa Marta residence late Wednesday to mark Rosh Hashanah, the upcoming Jewish New Year.
Lauder told reporters on Thursday that the WJC and the pope were "in absolute agreement" in condemning militant attacks on Christians in the Middle East and said the pope had compared the persecution to attacks on the Jews.
"Francis told us privately that he believes we are in World War III, but unlike the first two world wars, instead of happening all at once, this war is coming in stages," Lauder said.
"He said first it was your turn and now it is our turn. In other words, first Jews suffered savage attacks that were met with the world's silence and now it is Christians who are being annihilated and the world is silent."
Lauder said he was surprised at the muted global reaction to the slaughter and persecution of Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria.
"The question is: Why doesn't the world react? There has been a tremendous focus on Israel when it defended itself, as any country would, when thousands of rockets were fired on it by terrorists, but not a word for the thousands of Christians in Iraq, Syria and the Middle East."
"There is one country in the Middle East where Christians are safe, and that country is Israel.There is only one country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing, and that country is Israel. Today the world does not have the luxury of remaining silent."
Lauder said he had first met the Argentine pope when he was still living and working in Buenos Aires and stressed he had done "a fantastic job" bringing Jews and Christians together.
Among the Jewish leaders who joined Lauder for his audience with the pope were Jack Terpins, president of the Latin American Jewish Congress; Chella Safra, treasurer of the WJC; and a number of Jewish community leaders and senior WJC officials.
"We want to share with the pope our message of peace and prosperity for the New Year," said Claudio Epelman, executive director of the LAJC and the WJC official in charge of relations with the Vatican.
Lauder has repeatedly said that the oppression of Christians is one of the world's most pressing issues, and in a recent op-ed published in The New York Times, Lauder said Jews had a duty to speak up on behalf of Christians.
"The Middle East and parts of central Africa are losing entire Christian communities that have lived in peace for centuries," he wrote in the op-ed piece published In August.
Lauder, the son of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, is a businessman, art collector and philanthropist. He was elected president of the WJC in 2007.