Amidst his yuletide duties, Pope Francis has written a heartfelt Christmas letter to Christians in the Middle East, assuring them of his closeness and encouraging them to be strong and persevere in the faith.
The Pope’s letter comes at a time when Christian communities have been decimated in the Middle East. The last ten years have seen a continual diminishment of Christians, many of whom have been driven out of the region. In this period, Iraq’s Christian population, for example, has plunged from more than a million to less than 400,000 today.
The plains of Nineveh and the capital of Mosul have been drained of Christians for the first time in over a thousand years, since ISIS jihadists ordered Christian residents to either convert, pay a tax for keeping their faith, or face execution.
The Pope employed unusually personal language in the letter, telling his hearers that their “witness means much to me!” and assuring them: “I pray for you and your intentions every day.”
“I write to you just before Christmas,” the Pope said, “knowing that for many of you the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs.”
The Pope recalled recent “afflictions and tribulations” in the Middle East, aggravated by “the work of a newer and disturbing terrorist organization, of previously unimaginable dimensions, which has perpetrated all kinds of abuses and inhuman acts.” He also acknowledged how ISIS has hurt the Christian population, “who have been brutally driven out of your native lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times.”
“Every day,” the Pope said, “I follow the new reports of the enormous suffering endured by many people in the Middle East. I think in particular of the children, the young mothers, the elderly, the homeless and all refugees, the starving and those facing the prospect of a hard winter without an adequate shelter.”
“This suffering cries out to God,” the Pope added, expressing his “personal closeness and solidarity, as well as that of the whole Church,” and offering “a word of consolation and hope.”
Francis encouraged his readers to remain close to Jesus, “like branches on the vine,” in the certainty that “no tribulation, distress or persecution can separate us from him.”
The Pope also emphasized the importance of the Christian presence in the Middle East. “You are a small flock,” he said, “but one with a great responsibility in the land where Christianity was born and first spread. You are like leaven in the dough.” He thanked them for their perseverance, saying: “Your very presence is precious for the Middle East.”
The Pope sent a special appeal to the young, urging them to “not be afraid or ashamed to be Christian,” and he promised to pray for “your faithfulness, your human and Christian development, and the attainment of your hopes and dreams.”
“That is why I wanted to write to you,” Francis concluded, “to encourage you and to let you know how precious your presence and your mission are in the land which the Lord has blessed.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome