Pope Benedict Opens Landmark Assembly of Mideast Bishops

Pope Benedict XVI opened up a special two-week assembly of Middle East bishops Sunday in hopes of contributing toward peace efforts through the Church.

"This unique event demonstrates the interest of the entire Church for that precious and beloved part of the People of God who live in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East," the pontiff stated during the mass to inaugurate the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Churches of the Middle East.

"It is the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the land of the Exodus and the return from exile; the land of the Temple and of the Prophets, the land in which the Only Begotten Son of Mary was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead; the cradle of the Church, established in order to carry Christ's Gospel to the ends of the earth," Benedict added. "And we too, as believers, look at the Middle East with this view, from the perspective of the history of salvation."

For the next two weeks, 172 bishops will be discussing the future of Christian communities in the Middle East together with 14 Roman Curia officials, 14 non-Catholic Christians and 30 academic experts. Among the non-Catholics expected to join the Oct. 10-24 gathering in Rome are 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.

The 15-day meeting comes 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.

Despite the grim reports, Benedict encouraged the special assembly to "raise our thanksgiving to the Lord of history."

"[D]espite often difficult and troubled events, from the time of Jesus until today, the Middle East has seen the continued presence of Christians," he pointed out.

The pope also stressed that the reason for the special assembly "is mainly a pastoral one."

"While not being able to ignore the delicate and at times dramatic social and political situation of some countries, the Pastors of the Middle Eastern Churches wish to concentrate on the aspects of their own mission," he clarified.

But Benedict also made clear that while the duty of the bishops is pastoral, the international community also has a part to play in seeing peace come to the Middle East.

"[T]he conditions of peace and justice, which are necessary for the harmonious development of all those living in the region, should be promoted," he proclaimed.

"Therefore all are called to give their personal contribution: the international community, by supporting a stable path, loyal and constructive, towards peace; those most prevalent religions in the region, in promoting the spiritual and cultural values that unite men and exclude any expression of violence," the pontiff added.

Meanwhile, the pope said, Christians will continue to contribute not only with the work of social promotion, such as institutes of education and health, but "above all with the spirit of the Evangelical Beatitudes, which enliven the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation."

"In this commitment, they will always have the support of the entire Church, as is solemnly attested by the presence here of the Delegates of the Episcopacies of other continents," he concluded.

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.