BEIRUT: Gregorius Lahham, the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic church has called on his fellow Christians to stay in Syria, despite the brutal conflict raging in the country.
"I say to my children, stay in your country, the future will be difficult, but it will be better, God willing," he told AFP in an interview.
The patriarch, who is headed to the Vatican for meetings with Pope Francis, also urged European countries to not "encourage Syrian Christians to emigrate."
"I say to the European countries that want to help, help people in difficulty, humanitarian cases but don't encourage people to emigrate," he said.
According to the patriarch, 450,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by the conflict that began in March 2011, around 40,000 of whom have fled to Lebanon.
He said between 1,000 and 1,200 Christians had been killed, both members of the military and civilians.
But he said, "Christians are not the only ones being targeted. All Syrians are being targeted, Shiites and Sunnis and Druze and Christians from all denominations."
The cleric condemned damage to "at least 57 Christian sites since the beginning of the conflict and accused the United States and other Western countries of prolonging the fighting by arming rebel fighters.
Christians make up around 10 percent of Syria's population, and many have rallied to President Bashar al-Assad's side, fearing the harsh Islamist ideology of some rebel fighters.
The conflict has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions since it began.