A bishop in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo has said that the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the first one between the heads of the two churches following their split over a millennium ago, provides comfort and hope to suffering Christians.
"The meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is perceived by Christians as the fruit of the cross they are experiencing. The suffering of all Christians in the Middle East bears the fruit of unity. This for us is a great consolation and helps us to move forward, even if we still have to suffer," said Bishop Georges Abou Khazen OFM, Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo for the Catholics of the Latin rite, according to Fides News Agency.
The meeting took place on Friday in Cuba, and was the first of its kind since the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Eastern Christianity branches, split from the Roman Catholic Church over 1,000 years ago.
Francis and Kirill decided to meet on neutral territory for the sake of Christian unity, and to stand together against the severe persecution believers are under in the Middle East and other places around the world.
"In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated," Francis and Kirill said in a joint statement.
"Their churches are being barbarously ravaged and looted, their sacred objects profaned, their monuments destroyed."
The two Church leaders embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks during the meeting on Friday, with Francis saying "we are brothers," according to Reuters.
"It is very clear that this is the will of God," the Vatican leader added.
Christians in Syria have especially been suffering great tragedies, being caught in the crossfire between the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, the Islamic State terror organization and a number of other rebel groups.
While all sides have been accused of grave human rights abuses by the United Nations, Christians have been targeted specifically by ISIS, which has beheaded followers of Christ for their faith on a number of occasions, and threatened them to convert to Islam or face death.
"The situation is very devastating and tragic. For Iraq, this has been happening for two generations. For Syria, the war has been taking place for the last three years, with no hope on the horizon for Christians in the area," Syriac Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said back in October, speaking out about the ongoing refugee crisis due to the war.
Bishop Khazen expressed hope, however, that the meeting between Francis and Kirill can encourage Christians to remain hopeful.
"A few days ago, a senior representative of the Moscow Patriarchate explicitly said that what made Cuba's meeting urgent was the common concern for the suffering of fellow Christians in the Middle East," the Franciscan Bishop added.
"We have also spoken about this in sermons and in our meetings: the faithful feel they have more courage when they realize that their sufferings have to do with the unity between the separated brethren, where Christ embraces us and comforts us all," he said.