A special two-week assembly of Middle East bishops concluded Sunday with a list of 44 propositions and a call by Pope Benedict XVI for individuals, groups and nations to work together for peace.
"Conflicts, wars, violence and terrorism have gone on for too long in the Middle East," said the pontiff in his homily Sunday. "Peace, which is a gift of God, is also the result of the efforts of men of goodwill, of the national and international institutions, in particular of the states most involved in the search for a solution to conflicts.
"We must never resign ourselves to the absence of peace," Benedict added.
For two weeks, 172 bishops gathered in Vatican City for the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Churches of the Middle East.The bishops were joined by 14 Roman Curia officials, 30 academic experts, and 14 non-Catholic Christians, including Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee and the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.
Together, the delegates discussed the future of Christian communities in the Middle East and agreed upon 44 propositions, including the creation of an office or commission entrusted with the study of migration and of the factors behind it so as to find ways of stopping it; greater use of the Arabic language in major Catholic institutions and meetings so that Christians of Arab culture have access to information in their mother tongue; and the renewal of ecumenical commitment between churches through practical initiatives.
Also among the propositions was the diffusion of the social doctrine of the Church, which the bishops noted as oftentimes lacking despite being "an integral part of faith formation;" pursuit of dialogue with followers of other religions to bring hearts and minds closer together; and a follow-up synod.
"The Churches which have taken part in the Synod are called upon to make sure that it is properly followed up by working together with the Council of the Catholic Patriarchs of the Middle East and the official structures of the relevant Churches, with a greater involvement of priests and lay and religious experts," the bishops concluded.
The Oct. 10-24 gathering was organized as Christians in the Middle East face increasingly difficult challenges wrought by the escalating conflicts and the rise of radical Islam.
Although they are the largest native non-Muslim religious group in Arab Middle East, Christians in the region are rapidly declining in number and influence due to a variety of reasons including lower birth rates among Christians compared to Muslims, persecution, poor socioeconomic prospect, and political instability.
In Iraq, for example, ongoing persecution has forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians to flee the country. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimated last year that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, up to 500,000 Christians had left the country. That translates to about half the Christian population leaving within the short time span of six years.
Meanwhile, throughout the Middle East, the faithful today account for only around six percent of the estimated 356 million people who live in the Middle East.
Some Middle East scholars fear the loss of the Christian community will not only have consequences for the Church but will also adversely affect Islamic moderation and the status of women in the region.
"[One] contribution that Christians can bring to society is the promotion of an authentic freedom of religion and conscience, one of the fundamental human rights that each state should always respect," pointed out Benedict in his homily Sunday.
And peace, the pope stated, "is the indispensable condition for a life of dignity for human beings and society."
"Peace is possible. Peace is urgent," Benedict exhorted. "We pray for peace in the Holy Land. We pray for peace in the Middle East, undertaking to try to ensure that this gift of God to men of goodwill should spread through the whole world."
From Iran to Egypt, the Vatican estimates there are about 17 million Christians, or about five percent of the region's population. A century ago, Christians made up around 20 percent.