Vatican charges international community ignores plight of Christians in the Middle East

By Victor L. Simpson, AP
Sunday, June 6, 2010

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.

The paper said that the line between religion and politics is blurred in Muslim countries, “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.”

“The key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognize religious freedom and human rights,” it said.

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.

The pope said Cyprus can “play a particular role in promoting dialogue and cooperation” in the region.

A meeting between the pope and a Muslim leader was scrapped after the Turkish Cypriot official was delayed crossing the United Nations-controlled buffer zone that divides the island between ethnic Turks and Greeks, the Vatican said.

Yusuf Suicmez, the head of Turkish Cypriots’ religious affairs department, said he had hoped to pray with the pope for peace and brotherhood. Benedict briefly met with another Turkish Cypriot Muslim leader on Saturday as part of efforts to talk to both sides of the island’s decades-old conflict and help foster reconciliation.

Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in the north in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it, and it maintains 35,000 troops there.

The island’s Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and newly-elected Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu resumed long-running reunification talks in May after a two-month pause for the poll. The talks have yielded only limited progress so far.

Benedict has tread a careful diplomatic path since arriving Friday on the island, but he made a poignant appeal for peace before leaving.

The pope said he saw for himself the “sad division of the island” and that he was “deeply moved” by the pleas of Cypriots who wished to return to homes in the north that were lost during the war.

“Let me encourage you and your fellow citizens to work patiently and steadfastly with your neighbors to build a better and more certain future for all your children,” the pope said.

A group of around 100 Orthodox Christian demonstrators earlier 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.”

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.”

The document 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.”

The Vatican expects about 150 bishops to attend the Oct. 10-24 meeting in Rome.

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