Antioch patriarchs tell Christians: Don't leave, you belong in Mideast

The five patriarchs of Antioch are joined by other Catholic and Orthodox leaders during a meeting in Damascus on June 8, 2015.(Antioch Patriarchate)

Catholic and Orthodox church leaders are calling on Christians in the Middle East to remain steadfast in their faith and to stay in the land of their birth, reaffirming that Christians have a place in the Muslim-dominated region.

The five Christian patriarchs of the Church of Antioch, one of the five major churches that composed the Christian Church before the East-West Schism, met in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Monday in a show of Christian unity and steadfastness.

They met at the headquarters of the local Greek Orthodox archdiocese in Damascus, a break from their usual meeting in Lebanon, to reassure all Christians of the region, the Catholic News Agency reported.

"We do not condemn those that choose to leave, but we remind Christians that steadfastness in faith often entails a great deal of tribulation," they said in a joint statement after their meeting.

"We call on everyone who claims to have an interest in our fate to help us to remain," said the leaders, namely Gregory III Laham (Melkite Greek Catholic), Bechara Rai (Maronite), Ignatius III Younan (Syriac Catholic), John X Yazigi (Greek Orthodox), and Ignatius Aphrem II (Syriac Orthodox).

They described themselves as the authentic people of the land who are "deeply rooted in its earth that was watered by the sweat of our fathers and grandfathers, and we confirm more than ever that we are staying."

The apostolic nuncio to Syria also attended the meeting.

The Syrian civil war and the conflict in Iraq have disrupted the lives of Muslims and Christians. Both conflicts have claimed many lives and forced millions of Iraqis and Syrians to be displaced from their homes.

The Christian patriarchs asked Syrians to support the campaign to promote Syrian unity as well as "the right of Syrians to determine freely their own future without foreign interference" and a "political settlement of the Syrian crisis."

The leaders also asked the international community "to take its responsibility and to stop the wars in our land," emphasising the need for peace. They also called for the return of refugees and the abducted back to their homes.

As the Islamic State continues to pose a serious threat to the lives of both Christians and Muslims, the patriarchs pushed for better relations with Muslims, saying Islamic extremism in any form must be opposed by teaching "a culture of openness, peace and freedom of belief."