ROME — Archbishop Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, has issued an urgent appeal to mark the beginning of Lent, calling for “prayer and fasting that Christians not leave Iraq.”

“Our Christian identity has had profound roots in the history and geography of Iraq for 2,000 years,” Patriarch Sako said, according to the Fides news agency. “Our roots and our clear sources are found in our country, and if we leave, we would be separated from our roots.”

Christians in Iraq need to “persevere and wait” and avoid listening “to those who instill fear” and those who, “in different ways, invite or encourage Iraqi Christians to abandon their country,” he said.

Many Christians in Iraq have left the country, after suffering greatly from brutal attacks by Islamist militants and social upheaval since the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. At the time, Christians numbered 1.5 million, or 5% of Iraq’s population; by 2013, that number dropped below 450,000.

The patriarch said, “We are here because of God’s will, and we are here with the help of his grace to build bridges and work with our Muslim brothers and sisters for the development of our country.”

In his message, Patriarch Sako also called for prayers for Syria, Lebanon and the entire region, that there may be an end to the unrest.

It is urgent that “the page be turned” in Iraq with the upcoming elections, he added, “so that the country can return to peace and security for the good of all citizens.”