Pope Francis denounced the “complicit silence” that has allowed violence to consume the Middle East and drive tens of thousands of Christians from their homes. He was speaking Saturday morning in the southern Italian port city of Bari, during a gathering of Orthodox patriarchs and Roman Catholic leaders united in praying for peace in the Middle East.
Pope Francis said that like lights in the darkness, Christians facing persecution in the Middle East are resilient against the most staggering odds. The pope was speaking during an ecumenical prayer on the shoreline of Bari, looking out to the Middle East.
Nineteen other religious leaders, the majority of them Eastern patriarchs or heads of churches in the Middle East, attended the Pope’s Saturday gathering.
Often referred to as a “window to the Middle East”, the city of Bari has long been considered a bridge between east and west. It is home to the relics of St. Nicholas, a saint venerated both by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
Francis greeted the religious leaders outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas and together they descended to the crypt to pray before the relics of the saint and light a single candle for peace, symbolizing the unity of Christians.
For years, the Pope has spoken of his concern about the plight of Christians driven from Mideast communities. The number of Christians in the region has dropped significantly in recent decades, due to persecution by Muslim extremists, wars and political and economic uncertainty.
In his opening prayer, Francis said the Middle East represented the source of Christianity, where ancient Christian traditions and heritage are preserved and where, he said, “our very souls are rooted.”
And yet, the pope said, the region so full of light in recent years has been “covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect”.
“All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many,” the pope added. “The Middle East has become a land of people who leave their own lands behind.”
The pope said: “Indifference kills and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference.”
Pope Francis expressed the fear that the Christian community in the Middle East might disappear, “disfiguring the face of the region. Today, as one,” he added “we want to kindle the flame of hope.”