The Russian Orthodox Church has warned that rising violence against Christian minorities in the Middle East could force them out of the region and urged international cooperation to protect them and their rights.
Patriarch Kirill told a Moscow conference the region's Christians had become "hostages of big politics" and the prospect of them being completely driven from the region was "quite realistic", Interfax news agency reported on Friday.
"One of the most symbolic tendencies of our time is the mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East and North Africa, caused by an unprecedented increase in violence against religious minorities in the region," he said.
Kirill called for "a viable mechanism to protect the rights of Christians and Christian communities" with the cooperation of the United Nations and representatives of the region's faiths.
The rise of radical Islamist attacks on Christians, first in Iraq and now in Egypt after dictators there were overthrown, has alarmed religious minorities across the Middle East and prompted support efforts from Christian churches abroad.
The Russian Church, the largest in Orthodox Christianity, has become increasingly active in world religious issues and its bishops took up the defence of Middle Eastern Christians in a statement in May on growing cases of "Christianophobia".
Christians make up about 5 percent of the Middle Eastern population, down from 20 percent a century ago because of a continuing exodus from the region. A large majority of them belong to local Orthodox churches.
The meeting Kirill addressed on Thursday was a Church-run conference on persecution of Christians that followed the May statement by Holy Synod, the Russian Church's governing body.
Kirill, elected head of the Russian Church in 2009, spoke of his concern for Christian minorities during a visit last month to Syria and Lebanon to visit Orthodox communities there.
"I pray to God that the change in the life of the Arab countries will not entail catastrophic events," he said in Beirut after meeting President Michel Suleiman.
Kirill revealed a special reason for Russian concern for Middle Eastern churches in a letter to Pope Shenouda III of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church after an army crackdown on a Christian protest left 25 dead.
"The carcasses of defiled churches still remaining in our country remind us to this day of the terrible years of persecution," he said, referring to the Soviet communist era.
"That is why we feel so strongly for the suffering of our brothers in faith in Egypt."
Metropolitan Hilarion, who succeded Kirill as the Church's foreign minister, last month accused Western countries of letting down Egypt's Christians as pressure on them rises.
"Not a single Western country has put any pressure on the provisional military authorities of that country or threatened economic sanctions," he said while receiving an honorary doctorate at the University of Lugano in Switzerland.
Hilarion told the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta in August that his office has been working with the Russian foreign ministry to consider tying foreign aid to Middle Eastern countries to the treatment of their Christian minorities.