Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis on Thursday said the Catholic Church will not accept a Middle East without Christians, who often find themselves forced to flee areas of conflict and unrest in the region.

(AFP Photo)
"We will not resign ourselves to imagining a Middle East without Christians," he said after meeting with patriarchs from Syria, Iran and Iraq, before calling for "the universal right to lead a dignified life and freely practise one's own faith to be respected."

The political upheaval that has swept the Arab world over the past three years has led to a rise of radical Islam, leaving minority Christians feeling threatened and sometimes forcing them to emigrate.

Francis said he had spoken to the patriarchs about "those who live in the Middle East, often in small flocks, in environments marked by hostility and conflicts" and "the size of the diaspora, which is notably growing."

He said he was concerned by "the situation of Christians, who suffer in a particularly severe way the consequences of tensions and conflicts in many parts of the Middle East."

"Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other areas of the Holy Land sometimes overflow with tears," he said.

Amid reports Christians are being 'punished' for the actions of Western powers, some faith experts have warned that Christianity is in danger of becoming extinct in its own cradle.

Francis said he "will not rest while there are still men and women, of any religion, whose dignity is affronted, who are stripped of the basics necessary for survival, whose future is stolen, who are forced to become refugees or displaced people."

He called on the patriarchs for "tireless zeal and that fraternal and paternal charity which bishops, priests and faithful look to us for, especially if they are alone and marginalised."

Last year, Francis' predecessor Benedict XVI used a trip to the Middle East to offer support to Christian minorities, calling on them not to emigrate or give in to a sense of "victimisation" amid the rising tide of Islamism.

Eastern Christians number between an estimated 10 and 13 million.

They make up 36 percent of the population in Lebanon, 10 percent in Egypt, 5.5 percent in Jordan, 5.0 percent in Syria, up to 2.0 percent in Iraq, 2.0 percent in Israel and 1.2 percent of Palestinians, according to the Oeuvre d'Orient Catholic association.

Among those meeting with Francis Thursday were Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch, Bishara Rai, the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic church, Gregory Laham, and the patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean church, Louis Sako.

Sako told Vatican Radio that Iraqi authorities were supplying visas as part of "a whole strategy to help Christians leave Iraq", even in areas in the north of the country where they are not under threat.

"The Middle East is going to empty of Christians", he warned.

The 2,000-year-old Christian community in the country has shrunk by more than half since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

In Syria and Lebanon, Christians claim they are persecuted by rebels challenging the regime, because of their perceived allegiance to President Bashar al-Assad.