Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah of Jerusalem, president of the regional Latin bishops' confe! rence, told the pope that religious affiliation is the major point of identity in all of the countries and has a huge influence on either stability or instability.
He said there was a clear need for "a new education in openness and understanding the other, who is different because of his religion, but identical for belonging to the same homeland."
"In three of our countries -- Iraq, Lebanon and the Holy Land -- the situation is explosive," the patriarch said. "Peace in the whole region depends on peace in the Holy Land."
Pope Benedict told the bishops he understood the challenges the region's small Christian communities are facing and he asked them to let their faithful know that he shares "their worries and their hopes."
While it is understandable that many want to migrate to countries where they can provide for their families and live their faith in peace and security, the pope asked the international Catholic community's help to support those who have chosen to stay so that the region does not "become an archaeological site deprived of church life."
In witnessing to the "living presence of Christ who came to reconcile the world to the Father," the pope said, the region's Christian communities must work together.
In addition, he said, "encountering members of other religions, Jews and Muslims, is a daily reality for you."
"In your countries, the quality of relations between believers has a very special significance of being both a witness to faith in the one God and a contribution to establishing more fraternal relations among persons and groups," the pope said.
A better understanding of one another should lead to great respect for the human dignity of each person and recognition of the equal rights and responsibilities of all, including the responsibility to care for the poor, he said.
Pope Benedict called for "authentic religious freedom" in every country of the region, allowing "everyone to freely practice his religion or to change it."
The pope asked "all people of good will," especially political leaders, "to promote dialogue among all the parties, stop the violence," and work for lasting peace and solidarity in the Middle East.
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