VATICAN CITY Pope Francis paid tribute on Monday to Middle East Christians who have clung to their faith during persecution by Islamist militants, saying there are more Christians martyrs now than in the Church's early days.
The pope spoke to thousands of people in St. Peter's Square for his holiday blessing on the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
He mentioned the persecution of Christians in Iraq, many of whom where able to spend their first Christmas since 2013 in churches after towns and cities were retaken from Islamic State.
"This was an example of fidelity to the Gospel," he said. "Despite trials and dangers, they courageously show that they belong to Christ," he said.
"Today, we want to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayers and even our tears," the pope said.
Christians in northern regions of Iraq held by Islamic State were given an ultimatum: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most of them fled to the autonomous Kurdish region to the east.
Leaders of various churches, including the Coptic Church in Egypt, whose members have been beheaded and churches bombed, have called the fact that Christians of all denominations were being killed in the Middle East an "ecumenism (unity) of blood."
"There are more Christian martyrs today than in the first centuries," said the pope, who has often denounced Islamic State and condemned the concept of killing in God's name.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by David Clarke)