“The Middle East today is a crossroads of difficult, painful situations,” Pope Francis said Friday, while suggesting that some would like to see the Christian presence eliminated.

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There is a risk in the Middle East the risk of “obliterating Christians,” the pope told a meeting of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches taking place in the Vatican. “A Middle East without Christians would not be the Middle East.”

Speaking off the cuff to accompany his prepared text, Francis told his audience that the Middle East today “suffers and weeps,” while some world powers look to the Middle East not so much out of concern for the culture, the faith, and the lives of its people, but rather wondering how they can “get a piece of it and have more dominion.”

Everyone says that Christians were the first to arrive in the Middle East, and must be respected, the pope said, but this is not the reality we see as “the number of Christians diminishes.”

Many do not want to return because the suffering is intense. “They love the land, love the faith, but the suffering has been intense, very intense,” he said.

“The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, the land of Jesus,” Francis said.

“In the Middle East there are the great churches, the ancient churches, with their theology, and their liturgies,” along with great works of beauty and the “spiritual masters” of the East. “We have to keep this. We have to fight for it.”

“That is also the sap – we could say – that comes from the roots to give life to our soul,” he said. “For our own spiritual life, how many of us use the teaching of the Fathers of the East, of the ancient monks who teach the path of contemplation, of holiness!”

The pope also took the occasion to once more denounce the ongoing armed struggles in the Middle East, which he called its “great sin.”

“There is a great sin in the Middle East, and poor people suffer from it,” the pontiff said. “The sin of the desire for power, the sin of war, which grows ever stronger… Even with sophisticated weapons. And the people suffer, children suffer.”

With its struggles because of few schools and few hospitals, the Middle East suffers, Francis said, but often Christians make it worse by their poor example, especially by not living evangelical poverty.

There is also our sin in the Middle East,” he said. “The sin of inconsistency between life and faith.”

“There are – perhaps not so many, but there are some – priests, some bishops, some religious congregations, who profess poverty but live like rich people,” he said.

“I would like these ‘rich ones’ – religious, Christians, some bishops or religious congregations – to despoil themselves more in favor of their brothers and sisters,” he said. “The Lord will not leave us alone.”

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