Pope Benedict Renews Call for Int'l Efforts in Middle East

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated Sunday his call for an "urgent and concerted" international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East before the conflicts there lead to greater bloodshed.

Speaking in a sports arena in Cyprus' capital city Nicosia, the pontiff expressed his hope in an upcoming gathering of Middle East bishops that will focus on "communion and witness" in the violence-ridden region, where the Christian minority continues to shrink.

"I pray that the work of the Special Assembly will help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs, so that just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship," Benedict said of the Oct. 10-24 meeting in Rome.

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The pope's remarks Sunday were made in tandem with the release of a 45-page document prepared for the synod of Middle East bishops, whose flocks have been trickling to other parts of the world.

The document – released in Arabic, English, French and Italian – said the rise of "political Islam" in Arab, Turkish and Iranian societies and its extremist currents are "clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike."

It also sounded off against the use of scripture by "certain Christian fundamentalists" to justify Israel's occupation of the West Bank, claiming that it makes the position of Christian Arabs "an even more sensitive issue."

"[T]he Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability throughout the region" is one factor making life difficult for Christians in the region, the document stated.

While it rejected anti-Semitism, the document criticized the Israeli occupation, saying it "is creating difficulties in everyday life, inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life."

The document called for dialogue among all faiths in the region and said the key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognize religious freedom and human rights.

It also urged Christians in the Middle East to "respond to their vocation of service to society" in the face of their challenges.

"This will be a major factor in our presence and our witnessing in our countries," it stated before concluding.

The Vatican estimates there are about 17 million Christians from Iran to Egypt. It expects about 150 bishops to attend the upcoming assembly in Rome.

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