Pope Francis on Thursday defended the benefits of the “Christian presence” in Syria and Iraq, calling on the international community to encourage the return of communities dispersed by war.
“My thoughts go notably to the people who had to leave their homes to escape the horrors of war, in search of a better life,” the pontiff said in a video message opening an online meeting organised by the Vatican with dozens of Catholic NGOs.
He added: “We must work to ensure that the Christian presence in these lands continue to be what it has always been: a sign of peace, progress, development, and reconciliation between peoples.”
His comments follow the surprise announcement on Monday that he plans to become the first-ever pope to visit Iraq, with a trip in March that will include visits to Baghdad and Mosul.
Iraq’s historic and diverse Christian communities have been devastated by the sectarian warfare that followed the 2003 US-led invasion and the IS sweep through a third of the country in 2014.
William Warda, co-founder of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, estimates there are now just 400,000 Christians in Iraq, down from 1.5 million in 2003.