VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Christians in war-torn areas of the Middle East must never be far from priests and bishops in their country so they can feel God’s closeness in the midst of suffering, Pope Francis said.

“It is fundamental to always nourish the style of evangelical closeness: in the bishops, so they may live it toward their priests and that they in turn make the Lord’s caress be felt by the faithful entrusted to them. But all the while keeping the grace of remaining disciples of the Lord, beginning with the first who learn to be the last among the least,” he said.


The pope spoke June 22 during a meeting with members of a Vatican coordinating body, known by its Italian acronym ROACO, which operates under the auspices of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. The funding agencies include two based in the United States: the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

The Congregation for Eastern Churches and the coalition of funding agencies are responsible for assisting Eastern-rite churches around the world as well as the Latin-rite church in the Holy Land.

The pope thanked ROACO members for their work throughout the years in areas of the world that have experienced “terrible waves of persecution and hardships, both in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.”

Although Christians are returning home in some areas they were forced to flee, others, “especially Syria, Iraq and Egypt, see their children suffer because of the continuing war and senseless violence perpetrated by fundamentalist terrorism,” he said.

“All these events have led us through the experience of Jesus’ cross: it is the cause of disturbance and suffering but, at the same time, it is a source of salvation,” the pope said.

Pope Francis also called on ROACO to “build a bridge” between Eastern and Western churches by helping all Christians so they may feel welcomed and live “according to their own ecclesial tradition.”

“Let us not forget that in the East, even in our days, Christians — it doesn’t matter whether they are Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — shed their blood as a seal of their witness,” the pope said.