Following an increase in violence in the country and the abduction of Orthodox nuns, the Greek Melkite patriarch of Antioch and All the East has reiterated the Church’s determination to remain in Syria.

"We are determined to remain in this blessed land even at the cost of martyrdom and martyrdom of blood,” Patriarch Gregory III Laham said in message to Fides News Agency Dec. 3rd.

He recalled this had already happened to some of the Melkite faithful, and paid tribute to three slain men from Maaloula: Michael Taalab, Antonios Taalab and Sarkis Zakhem. “They are true martyrs killed for refusing to renounce their faith," he said.

The Damascus-based patriarch issued the comments after news that armed Islamist militants had re-entered the Christian village of Maaloula, terrorizing the population and taking hostage 12 Orthodox nuns from the convent of St. Thecla.

Gregory III said that in Syria there are 9 million displaced persons. Over 1.2 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon, among them about 42,000 Christians. Overall there are 450,000 Christians (of various denominations) who have emigrated abroad. According to figures provided by the Patriarch, among the Syrian Christians there are about 1,200 deaths, including civilians, soldiers, nuns and priests. At least 60 churches have been damaged.

In his message, the Patriarch remembered with joy the meeting last Saturday of pilgrims from the Melkite Church with Pope Francis: "Together with the Holy Father, we invoked the flame of hope so that it would not extinguish in our hearts,” he said. “Helped and sustained by the Pope’s prayers, concern and prophetic, bold and evangelical initiatives, we wish to stay in this blessed land, cradle of Christianity".

The Patriarch asked the Pope to "help the Syrian Christians to remain in the Middle East" and launched an appeal: "We, Christians and Muslims, can and want to stay together, to witness the Gospel and build a new world and a better society and future for our young people,” he said.