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Pope opens Mideast meeting, urges peace and harmony

ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Sunday opened a synod of Roman Catholic bishops on the Middle East, where Christianity began but is in sharp decline, by calling for peace, justice and harmony in the troubled region.

Starting the two-week meeting to debate how to save minority communities in the region and encourage harmony with Muslim neighbors, he called on the international community, and people of all religions to contribute to creating peace and stability.

“Living in a dignified manner in one’s own country is, above all, a fundamental human right,” the Pope said in his homily.

“Therefore the conditions of peace and justice, which are necessary for the harmonious development of all those living in the region, should be promoted.”

About 180 bishops, mainly from the Middle East, will discuss problems for the faithful ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and strife in Iraq to radical Islamism, economic crisis and the divisions among the region’s many Christian churches.

They come from local churches affiliated with the Vatican, but the relentless exodus from the region of all Christians -- Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants -- has led them to take a broad look at the challenges facing all followers of Jesus there.

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While conditions for Christians vary from country to country in the Middle East, the overall picture is dramatic. Christians made up around 20 percent of the region’s population a century ago, but now account for about five percent and falling.

During the opening mass on Sunday, prayers were read in several languages of the region including Arabic, which will be an official language at the synod for the first time.

Muslim and Jewish leaders have also been invited to speak at this synod, including an Iranian ayatollah and a rabbi from Jerusalem.

The pope recalled the history of Christianity in its Middle Eastern birthplace on Sunday and said those living there today should “enliven their consciousness of being the living stones of the Church in the Middle East.”

In his angelus blessing, he also urged Christians in the region to not be discouraged by the difficulties they face.

Reporting by Catherine Hornby, editing by Tim Pearce