JERUSALEM - In a sombre pre-Christmas address Tuesday, the Middle East's senior Catholic cleric expressed concern about the plight of Iraqi Christians and the collapse of talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal offered his solidarity and support to Christians in Iraq after a bloody October hostage-taking at a Baghdad cathedrak that killed 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel.
"We were shocked and troubled by the massacre of Christians in Baghdad in the Church of Perpetual Help," Twal said in his Jerusalem headquarters.
"We condemn this violence. It's a pity to empty Iraq of its Christian citizens... It's a pity for us, for the Muslims themselves, for Iraq, for the Christians themselves.
"For the Iraqi Christians, we are with them in this bad situation," he added, noting the sharp drop in the number of Christians in Iraq from about 800,000 at the time of the US-led invasion of 2003 to about 500,000 now.
"We hope that even in Iraq, peace will be established and some of them can go back to their country, to their homes, to their churches, to their villages."
Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI called for "Christ's followers" to be defended in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and warned governments not to allow "anti-religious fanaticism."
Twal also used his traditional address ahead of Christmas to lament the failure of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and called on Europe to take a more active role in pushing for a solution.
"What I ask Europe is to have a more political role in the process of peace in the Middle East," he told reporters.
"Europe helps us financially a lot, we ask them to be more involved if it is possible, if there is room for them, that's the question, till now they have been excluded from the process."
Israel and the Palestinians began direct peace talks on September 2 after a hiatus of nearly two years, but the negotiations ground to a halt just three weeks later with the expiry of 10 months of Israeli restrictions on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
The Palestinians have said they will not negotiate while Israel builds on land they want for their promised state, but Washington failed to secure a renewal of the Israeli restrictions and has now called for indirect peace talks instead.
Twal said the breakdown of talks "should not lead us to despair."
"We continue to believe that on both sides, and in the international community, there are men of goodwill who will work and put their energies together in their commitment for peace," he said in his address.
"We believe that nothing is impossible with God."