The Vatican convened its ambassadors from countries across the Middle East and North Africa for the second day of a three-day summit on Friday, in an attempt to determine how Christian minorities in the region could be better protected from persecution in light of the rise of extremist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Vatican envoys from Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey met to discussthe fortunes of the region’s estimated 7.5 million Christians. Rising religious persecution has been especially pronounced in Syria and Iraq, where thousands of religious and ethnic minorities have been forced to flee in the face of death threats.
“There are no religious, political or economic factors that can justify what is happening to hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children,” Pope Francis said on Thursday. “We are deeply united in our prayers for intercession and in charity towards these suffering members of the body of Christ.”
Iraq’s Nineveh province, including its capital Mosul, is now completely devoid of Christians for the “first time in centuries,” according to The Associated Press. Yazidis, another religious minority group, have also been targeted by ISIL. In August, the Iraqi government said that ISIL fighters had killed at least 500 Yazidis and have taken hundreds of women as slaves.
Meanwhile, in Syria, thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced over the course of the three-and-a-half year conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s and opposition groups that include hardline Islamic groups. Historic churches and icons were destroyed earlier this year in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, located northeast of Damascus.
In a press release on Friday, the Vatican stressed the need for “protection and respect for Christians and other religious minorities as fully-entitled citizens” in Muslim-majority countries.
Jordan’s President King Abdullah II spoke out against sectarian violence in his address to the United Nations’ General Assembly last week, saying “Islam prohibits violence against Christians and other communities that make up each country.”
“Let me say once again: Arab Christians are an integral part of my region’s past, present and future,” he said.
Earlier this year, researchers at the Pew Research Center said that Christians faced “religious harassment in a greater share of countries in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region in 2012.”
Of the Christians living in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Syria, 65 percent are Orthodox Christians, while Catholics comprise 27 percent, according to Pew.
In August, Pope Francis said that efforts to halt the advance of extremists attacking Christians and other religious minorities was legitimate, but stopped short of endorsing U.S.-led airstrikes, which continued this week.
“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis told reporters at the time. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”