Pope and patriarch pledge support for Mideast Christians

Pope and patriarch pledge support for Mideast Christians

Pope and patriarch pledge support for Mideast Christians

Pope Francis today joined forces with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Batholomew I to make a rare joint pledge of support for the embattled Christians of the Middle East.

On the final day of his first visit to Turkey, Francis also urged an end to the millennium-old schism between the Orthodox and Catholic churches and said this was all the more urgent due to the violence against Christians by Islamic State (IS) extremists.

The trip of the pope to Istanbul -- once the capital of the Christian Byzantine world and formerly known as Constantinople -- has been marked by his overtures to reach out both to Muslims and other Christian confessions.

He left aboard the papal plane in the early evening, also finding time to address around 100 refugees displaced by the violence in Iraq and Syria.

The pope early today attended a divine liturgy led by Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the "first among equals" of an estimated 300 million Orthodox believers.

In a joint declaration, Bartholomew and the leader of the world's Roman Catholics pledged to support Christians in the Middle East, saying they could not let Christianity be driven out of the region.

"We cannot resign ourselves to a Middle East without Christians, who have professed the name of Jesus there for two thousand years," the church leaders said.

They said the "terrible situation" of Christians calls "for an appropriate response on the part of the international community."

The two church leaders also called on the parties involved in the Ukraine conflict "to pursue the path of dialogue and of respect for international law".

Pope Francis in an address at the Orthodox Patriarchate on the banks of the Golden Horn urged an end to the schism between Orthodox and Catholic churches to bring them back into full communion.

"The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome... is communion with the Orthodox churches."

"How can we credibly proclaim the message of peace which comes from Christ if there continues to be rivalry and disagreement between us?" he said.

Batholomew for his part said that while the road to full communion would be "perhaps lengthy and sometimes even rugged" it was irreversible.

He echoed the pope's comments that the violence against Christians had made this more pressing. "We no longer have the luxury of isolated action."

The pope and Bartholomew have in the last months worked hard for a rapprochement between the eastern and western churches which have been split since the schism of 1054.