NEW YORK CITY — As displaced Christians return to their homes in the Middle East, the Vatican secretary of state encouraged U.N. representatives Friday to help rebuild a culture ravaged by the Islamic State.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin spoke Sept. 27 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City during a panel discussion hosted by Hungary.

The panel was titled “Rebuilding Lives, Rebuilding Communities: Ensuring a Future for Persecuted Christians.” It discussed the restoration of war-torn areas such as Iraq and Syria. In the spring the last sector of Islamic State territory in Syria was dislodged, but guerilla warfare throughout the two countries has continued.

Cardinal Parolin discussed his recent visit to the Nineveh Plains of Iraq. He said his trip was both inspiring and difficult, as Christians return to the cities destroyed by the Islamic State.

“Last Dec. 24 to 28, I had the privilege to travel to the Nineveh Plains in Iraq to celebrate Christmas with some of the most courageous and inspiring people I have ever met,” he said.

“While I was so edified by their rich humanity, infectious joy and strong faith, I was also struck at the state of the rebuilding process,” he further added.

He said the flight and return of Middle East Christians parallels the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt when Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled Bethlehem fearing the wrath of King Herod. He said it’s a sign of Christian victory and triumph over evil.

“Many of the Christians of the Nineveh Plains, after their escape and exile, have now been able to return home, to begin the arduous process, not just of reconstructing buildings, but of reassembling the social fabric that has been rent asunder by hatred, betrayal and brutality,” he said.

“Their return, I told them, is a sign that evil does not have the last word. It is also a powerful witness of the importance of a Christian presence in the Middle East, where Christianity has its deepest historical roots and has been a fundamental source of peace, stability and pluralism for centuries.”

Cardinal Parolin thanked the Hungarian government and charities, like Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus and Caritas International, for their humanitarian efforts. However, the cardinal said there is much more work to be done, especially regarding security and shelter.

“As I walked in the city of Mosul, there was still rubble everywhere, making it difficult to traverse. Much of the basic infrastructure still needs to be rebuilt. The security situation, which is essential for the region to flourish anew, is still tenuous,” he said.

“Basic humanitarian aid also remains necessary. There is a pressing need for jobs and job training, for education and youth programs, for mental health care and much more.”

He encouraged humanitarian groups to continue to build up these countries, stressing the importance of the religious rights of minorities. He said countries must take a stand to ensure religious protections, especially physical defenses. He drew attention to recent instances of religious violence, such as the Easter bombing in Sri Lanka and the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“All of us here this morning know that religious freedom is a fundamental right. It is grounded in human dignity. It means far more than the right to believe or worship and includes the right to seek the truth and the liberty to live, privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles that flow from religious ones. Protecting religious freedom, which is a grave duty incumbent upon civil authorities, is a great challenge in our present world.”

He pointed to the efforts of Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, who signed the joint “Declaration on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” Feb. 4. The document strongly discouraged religious violence and emphasized the importance of religious liberty.

“They explicitly addressed the right to religious freedom and what must be done to defend and advance it. They then spoke about the protection of places of worship as a direct consequence of the defense of freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” he said.

“And, very importantly, they mutually affirmed that in order to protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, there is a need to bolster the concept of the rule of law and equality before the law based on the principle of citizenship, regardless of one’s religion, race or ethnicity.”