Pope and Assyrian Patriarch: Blood of Middle East martyrs is ‘seed of Christian unity’

shutterstock 347219426 Abandoned ancient church in Iraqi desert located near Kirkuk city, Iraq. | BilalIzaddin/Shutterstock

Pope Francis and the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Gewargis III have pledged ecumenical unity in support of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. In a joint statement released Nov. 9, the two leaders called the blood of recent martyrs in the Middle East the "the seed of Christian unity."

"On our pilgrimage towards visible unity, we experience a common suffering, arising from the dramatic situation of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria," reads the common statement of the pope and the patriarch signed Friday.

"We are profoundly united in our prayer of intercession and in our charitable outreach to these suffering members of Christ's body," it continues.

The Assyrian Church of the East, based in Northern Iraq, has approximately 170,000 members, mostly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the United States. While they been separated from the Chaldean Catholics of the region for centuries, both have suffered greatly from the genocide committed by the Islamic State.

In 2001, a synod of the the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church approved inter-communion between the two churches, allowing Assyrian faithful to participate and receive Holy Communion in a Chaldean celebration of the Holy Eucharist and vice versa.

The two leaders condemned the persecution of Christians in the region, and reaffirmed that "it is not possible to imagine the Middle East without Christians."

"Christians do not want to be considered a "protected minority" or a tolerated group, but full citizens whose rights are guaranteed and defended, together with those of all other citizens," they stated.

Following their meeting, Pope Francis and the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East prayed together, asking for the intercession of Apostles Peter and Paul for the Christians in the Middle East.

Pope Francis said, "We share the great suffering resulting from the tragic situation endured by so many of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, who are victims of violence and frequently forced to leave the lands in which they have always lived."

"They tread the via crucis in the footsteps of Christ," he added.

Mar Gewargis III thanked the pope for the Vatican's work in raising awareness in the international community about the continued plight and suffering of Assyrian Christians and other Christian communities in Iraq, Syria and in other parts of the Middle East.

"The many decades of war, violence, religious hostilities and sectarianism has had immeasurable and, sadly, irreversible effects on the ancient Christian communities of the East," the patriarch told the pope.

In 2015, 230 Assyrian Christians were abducted by the Islamic State when they attacked villages across Al-Hasakah province.

"What we have witnessed in both Iraq and Syria within the last 15 years is a living testimony to this grievous situation of the forced departure and displacement (both internally and externally) of millions of Christians from the region of the Middle East," he said.

Mar Gewargis III spoke highly of their "common dedication and commitment to religious freedom around the world," calling it "one of the most essential of human rights, which perpetually sustains the dignity of the human person."

The meeting marked the second time that patriarch had met with Pope Francis in Rome, and a continuation in ecumenical dialogues that have been ongoing since 1984.

Earlier this week, members of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church participated in "Joint Committee for Theological Dialogue" discussions in Rome.

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