Chirac Backs Christians’ Presence in Mideast

French President Meets Eastern Patriarchs

PARIS, MAY 17, 2006 ( French President Jacques Chirac defended the freedom of conscience and religion for Eastern Christians who, he said, “more than ever, have their place in the Middle East.”

The French leader voiced this view Monday in the Elysee palace when meeting with six patriarchs of the Eastern Churches. The patriarchs are in the French capital through Sunday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Oeuvre d’Orient (Work of the East).

According to the Oeuvre d’Orient, there are 60,000 Christians in Iran, 600,000 in Iraq, 50,000 in Turkey and over 7 million in Egypt. In Lebanon they account for 40% of the population, in Syria 10%, and in Palestine and Israel 2%.

The association, established in 1856 by a group of laymen to help the children of Lebanon, was recognized as an ecclesial work by Pope Pius IX in 1858. With its presence and financial support the association seeks to make it possible for Eastern Christians to stay in their respective countries.

President Chirac said that Eastern Christians “have always been a bridge to Europe and have contributed to the dialogue of cultures, long before there was a major focus on international relations. In this connection, they have more than ever their place in the Middle East.”

Among the Eastern leaders present at the meeting were Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronites, and Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem.

The French president added: “The regulation of conflicts is the best guarantee of freedom of conscience and of religion, which must be defended and reaffirmed, as the diversity of cultures and their coexistence are the condition for a future of peace and prosperity.”