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BARI, Italy – Pope Francis denounced the "complicit silence" that has allowed violence to consume the Middle East and drive tens of thousands of Christians from their homes, during a remarkable gathering Saturday of Orthodox patriarchs and Catholic leaders united in praying for peace in the region.
Francis hosted the daylong ecumenical service in the symbolically rich Adriatic port city of Bari, considered a bridge between east and west and home to the relics of St. Nicholas, an important saint in the Orthodox world.
Francis greeted the patriarchs outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas and together they descended to the crypt to pray before the relics and light a flame for peace symbolizing the unity of Christians.
For years, the Vatican has voiced concern about the plight of Christians driven from Mideast communities that date to the time of Christ. Just last week, Francis decried intensified attacks in southern Syria that killed scores of people and forced tens of thousands to flee.
In his opening prayer, Francis said the Middle East represented the source of Christianity, where ancient Christian rites and heritage are preserved and where "our very souls are rooted."
And yet, in recent years the region has been "covered by dark clouds of war, violence and destruction, instances of occupation and varieties of fundamentalism, forced migration and neglect," he said.
"All this has taken place amid the complicit silence of many," he lamented. "The Middle East has become a land of people who leave their own lands behind."
In a prayer service punctuated by haunting Arabic chant and Catholic hymn, Francis said the Orthodox and Catholic leaders wanted to give voice to those who have none.
"Indifference kills, and we desire to lift up our voices in opposition to this murderous indifference," he said. "For the Middle East today is weeping, suffering and silent as others trample upon those lands in search of power or riches."
Among the patriarchs on hand was the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as well as patriarchs from ancient churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Notably absent from the gathering was Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has been a strong supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin's military intervention in Syria.
Kirill sent his deputy, Metropolitan Hilarion.
Winfield reported from Rome.