“On our pilgrimage towards visible unity, we experience a common suffering, arising from the dramatic situation of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria”. This is stated in the joint declaration signed by Pope Francis and Mar Gewargis III, the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, at the end of today’s audience. “For decades now – the document alarmingly points out -, the Middle East has been an epicentre of violence” where “hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children suffer immensely from violent conflicts that nothing can justify. Wars and persecutions have increased the exodus of Christians from lands where they have lived side by side with other religious communities since the time of the Apostles. Without distinction of rite or confession, they suffer for professing the name of Christ”. “We are grateful to these brothers and sisters of ours”, the declaration reads, for the “witness they give to the Kingdom of God by the fraternal relationships existing among their various communities” and for the blood of the “martyrs of our time”, which is a “seed of Christian unity”. To “stand together with our persecuted brothers and sisters, to be a voice for the voiceless” – this is the commitment made by the two signatory parties. “Together we will do all we can to alleviate their suffering and help them to find ways to start a new life”. “We wish to affirm yet again that it is not possible to imagine the Middle East without Christians” – this is the key point made in the declaration. “This conviction is founded not simply on religious grounds, but also on social and cultural realities, since Christians, with other believers, greatly contribute to the specific identity of the region: a place of tolerance, mutual respect and acceptance. The Middle East without Christians would no longer be the Middle East”. “A truce maintained by walls and displays of power will not lead to peace, since genuine peace can only be attained and preserved through mutual listening and dialogue”, the statement observes, calling once again on the international community to “implement a political solution that recognizes the rights and duties of all parties involved”, starting with “the need to guarantee the rights of every person”. “The primacy of law, including respect for religious freedom and equality before the law, based on the principle of ‘citizenship’, regardless of ethnic origin or religion, is a fundamental principle for the establishment and preservation of a stable and productive coexistence among the peoples and communities of the Middle East”, the declaration concludes: “Christians do not want to be considered a ‘protected minority’ or a tolerated group, but full citizens whose rights are guaranteed and defended, together with those of all other citizens”. Hence interreligious dialogue is of paramount importance, for it is “the best antidote to extremism”.