A boy lights candles during the Easter Vigil in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City March 30. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)
A boy lights candles during the Easter Vigil in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City March 30. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Growing extremism in Syria could jeopardize the safety of all Christians, said Syriac Catholic Bishop Gregoire Melki of Jerusalem.

“It is a very sad situation and we are really anxious,” he told Catholic News Service May 18, following a special prayer service in Jerusalem. “We are very anxious when we remember what happened to the Christians in Iraq. We fear the same thing will happen to the Christians in Syria.

“Those who can, escape,” said Bishop Melki, who said he remains in contact with church leaders in Syria. “For more than two years there has not been a solution (to the violence.) We have to pray.”

Although the situation is dire for all Syrians, it is even more so for the Christians because they are a minority, and in such chaotic situations it is always the minority which is attacked first, he said. He said hoped this would not signal the end of the Christian community in Syria.

“We have the hope of Jesus, that is our faith, but if we look at this with human eyes (we see the situation) is dangerous,” he said.

The heads of Christian churches in Israel attended the 10th prayer service for reconciliation, unity and peace as about 200 local Christians and foreign religious packed the tiny Syriac Catholic Church of St. Thomas. The ceremony was broadcast on closed-circuit TV from the small sanctuary to an adjoining sitting room to accommodate the unusually large numbers of people in attendance.

The church leaders took part in the special Syriac blessing of the water ceremony recited over small bottles of water, later distributed to the worshippers.

In his homily, Bishop Melki said the church in Syria “continues to be a victim of the total chaos and war.”

“We pray fervently day and night for (Christian) unity and peace, especially in Syria, and for the two bishops who have been kidnapped and their release and for others kidnapped elsewhere in the Middle East.”

Syriac Orthodox Bishop Swerios Malki Murad of Jerusalem helped lead the prayer service.

“We, both bishops, and all churches here in Jerusalem, are concerned about the civil war in Syria and the terrible impact it is having on the population and also of course on the Christians,” said Bishop Melki.

As the congregation prayed for peace especially in Syria, two members of the congregation held up a large banner at the entrance of the sanctuary with a picture of the two Orthodox bishops seized by unknown assailants April 22. Their driver was killed during the attack. Two other priests were also kidnapped in February.

“We are powerless and the only thing to do is to pray and give moral and spiritual support to the Christians there to be strong,” Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, told CNS after the service.

“We have to remember we can’t always be in winter, it can’t rain continuously. Sooner or later the rain will come to an end, and we have to pray to be strong during this period so we can be ready when the sun comes out,” he said.

By Judith Sudilovsky Catholic News Service