.- Iraqi Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk has asked the Catholic patriarchs and bishops of the Middle East to speak with Pope Benedict XVI about their fears that the survival of Christianity in the region is at risk.

“The patriarchs and the bishops should go beyond the formalities to speak directly and openly with him about their fears and concerns. We should make clear our worries and the challenges ahead,” the archbishop told Aid to the Church in Need on Sept. 4.

Christian leaders will meet with the Pope in Lebanon during his Sept. 14-16 visit.

“The rise of political Islam is a matter of worry,” he said. “We Christians are a minority and there is no prospect of us gaining equal citizenship in the concrete reality of day-to-day life and there is no vision of a better future.”

“Everyone is speaking of democracy and freedom but the reality on the ground is different,” he explained.

The archbishop said “sectarianism” is rising and the majority population is not caring for minority groups.

There are “real fears” that more Christians will leave, he reported. The Christian exodus shows no signs of stopping in Iraq, where more than half of the Christian population has left. The trend of Christians leaving their homes has spread to other countries in the Middle East like Syria.

The archbishop recounted the violence against Christians in Iraq, which peaked after the U.S. overthrow of President Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. Dozens of churches have been bombed in the country, while Christians have been targeted for kidnapping and murder.

He said it is difficult for him to encourage the faithful in his diocese to stay. There are “few” families left.

“I am doing my best to keep them, defend them and encourage them. That has limited the problem but it is sad to see them leaving for good,” he wrote. “As a pastor, I feel bad.”

He said the policy of the Iraqi state is “based on Islam,” which means Christians “feel they are second-class citizens.”

As for the Catholic hierarchy in the country, it has “become tired” and is “sometimes divided.” There are “no reforms or dynamism” inside the churches.

“The good news of Jesus Christ should have a dynamic dimension. So where are the reasons for hope, the reasons for joy as given in our teaching?” he asked.

The archbishop called for a development of a “Christian Arab theology” that can proclaim God’s word to Arab Christians and to those who are not Christians. This would help Arabs discover “God’s love and paternal presence” in a way that enhances dialogue.