VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The small Christian communities heroically remaining in Iraq must work together, and assist and support each other, Pope Benedict XVI told the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East.
"The Assyrian Church of the East is rooted in ancient lands whose names are associated with the history of God's saving plan for all mankind," the pope told Catholicos Dinkha IV, patriarch of the church whose oldest communities are in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
"Today, tragically, Christians in the region are suffering both materially and spiritually," the pope said.
"Particularly in Iraq, the homeland of so many of the Assyrian faithful, Christian families and communities are feeling increasing pressure from insecurity, aggression and a sense of abandonment," he said. "Many of them see no other possibility than to leave the country and to seek a new future abroad."
Those who remain in Iraq, "often at the price of heroic sacrifices," have a right to the support and assistance of all Christian communities, Pope Benedict said.
Catholicos Dinkha asked Pope Benedict to use "all the ecclesiastical and diplomatic means at your disposal to ensure the safety and security" of the Christians remaining in Iraq.
The catholicos said they are being "persecuted, martyred and driven out of their homes on account of their faith in Jesus."
The pope also told the catholicos, whose base has been in the United States since Catholicos Mar Simon XXIII was expelled from Iraq in the 1930s, that the Chaldean Catholic and Assyrian communities in North America, Australia and Europe also must help one another maintain the distinctive religious and cultural heritage they share.
"At the same time, when Christians from the East and West live side by side, they have a precious opportunity to enrich one another and to understand more fully the catholicity of the church, which, as a pilgrim in this world, lives, prays and bears witness to Christ in a variety of cultural, social and human contexts," the pope said.
After a series of historic ecumenical agreements with the Assyrian church on points of dogma and doctrine, in 2001 the Vatican approved guidelines permitting Assyrians to receive Communion at a Chaldean Catholic liturgy and Chaldeans to receive Communion at an Assyrian liturgy when clergy of their own communities were not available.
"New hopes and possibilities sometimes awaken new fears, and this is also true with regard to ecumenical relations," the pope said, expressing his hope that tensions within the Assyrian church would not be allowed to delay the work of the Catholic-Assyrian dialogue commission.
Catholicos Dinkha told the pope that the Assyrian Synod of Bishops had agreed to continue the dialogue and intends to support a joint Catholic-Assyrian declaration on the sacraments.
Neither the catholicos nor the Vatican said when they expect the declaration to be completed.