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Vatican says world ignores Christians in Mideast

NICOSIA, Cyprus: The Vatican said Sunday that the international community is ignoring the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and political instability in Lebanon have forced thousands to flee the region.
A working paper released during Pope Benedict XVI's pilgrimage to Cyprus to prepare for a crisis summit of Middle East bishops in Rome in October also cites the "extremist current" unleashed by the rise of "political Islam" as a threat to Christians.
In his final Mass in Cyprus on Sunday, Benedict said he was praying that the October meeting will focus the attention of the international community "on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs."
He appealed for an "urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land, before such conflicts lead to greater bloodshed."
The Vatican considers mostly Greek Orthodox Cyprus as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and invited bishops to come to the Mediterranean island to receive the working paper to counter the exodus of thousands of Christians in recent years because of war and harsh economic conditions.
A group of around 100 Orthodox Christian demonstrators staged a peaceful protest against Benedict's visit outside the Nicosia sports stadium where the pope presided over Mass, holding aloft banners calling the pope "a heretic."
"We don't accept the pope's visit here," Telemachos Telemachou, 51, told The Associated Press. "The pope shouldn't have come … We have nothing against Benedict as an individual, but with the heresy."
The Vatican estimates there are about 17 million Christians from Iran to Egypt, and that while many Christians have fled, new Catholic immigrants — mostly from the Philippines, India and Pakistan — have arrived in recent years in Arab countries to work as domestic or manual laborers.
The 46-page document said input from clerics in the region blamed the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories for inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life, alleging that access to holy places is dependent on military permission that is sometimes denied on security grounds.
It also complained that some Christian fundamentalists use biblical texts to justify Israel's occupation "making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue."
It said "emigration is particularly prevalent" because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also blamed the "menacing social situation" in Iraq and political instability in once heavily Christian Lebanon.
A further exodus of Christians from the Holy Land would be a great loss to the church in the "very place where (Christianity) was born," it said.
"International politics oftentimes pays no attention to the existence of Christians and the fact that they are victims, at times the first to suffer, goes unnoticed," the document said.
It 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."
With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism "attacks against Christians are increasing almost everywhere," it said.
It complained that Muslims often make no distinction between religion and politics "thereby relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered non-citizens, despite the fact that they were citizens of their countries long before the rise of Islam."
And it lamented that Middle Eastern countries often identity Christianity with the West.
"History has made us a little flock," the document said. "However, through what we do, we can still become a presence which has great value."
The Vatican expects about 150 bishops to attend the Oct. 10-24 meeting in Rome.
The trip began under the cloud of a bishop slain in Turkey. But Benedict accepted that the motive was personal and not political or religious, and police have arrested the bishop's driver.
On Sunday, the pope paid tribute to Bishop Luigi Padovese, saying the cleric was committed to interreligious and cultural understanding. Benedict said the death "surprised and shocked all of us."


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