CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (CNS) -- Amid increasing violence in eastern Congo, Pope Benedict XVI called for peaceful dialogue and greater protection of civilians there.

After praying the Angelus with pilgrims gathered in the courtyard of the papal summer residence Sept. 30, the pope said he was following, "with love and concern," the events unfolding in Congo.

Government soldiers have been stationed in Goma in the eastern part of the country for several months to fight the rebel group called "M23," which defected from the Congolese military.

Clashes, which intensified in the spring, have led more than 300,000 people to flee their homes, according to Vatican Radio.

The United Nations has said Rwandan defense officials are backing the rebel group, which has been accused of rape and the murder of civilians in its effort to control Congo's mineral-rich North Kivu province. Rwandan officials have denied allegations of assisting the rebels.

The pope said his prayers were with the "refugees, women and children, who because of prolonged armed clashes are subjected to suffering, violence and deep distress."

The pope called for the "peaceful means of dialogue and the protection of many innocent people" so that peace -- founded on justice -- may quickly return to the nation and the whole region.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Choosing men and women from every part of the world and from a wide variety of professions, Pope Benedict XVI nominated 45 experts and 49 observers for the upcoming world Synod of Bishops.

The Oct. 7-28 gathering will include the largest bloc of women — 10 experts, including Sr. Gill Goulding of Toronto's Regis College, and 19 observers — ever to participate in a Vatican synod.

Europe accounts for the overwhelming majority of the appointees, followed by North America, with 10 people from the United States, two from Mexico and Goulding from Canada. A number of the appointees are also advisors to the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization and other Vatican offices.

The list of papal appointments to the synod was published Sept. 22 by the Vatican.

Experts and observers, who include laypeople, are not voting members of the synod. According to Vatican rules, only priests, bishops and cardinals can be full members who vote and determine the propositions to be presented to the Pope at the end of the gathering.

The 45 experts include priests, nuns and laypeople, many of whom are professors, rectors or supervisors of catechetical or pastoral programs. They will serve as resources for the more than 200 synod members as they discuss the theme, "New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith."

The 49 observers can attend all synod sessions, participate in the synod working groups and have an opportunity to address the entire assembly.

Many of the observers are leaders of religious orders, founders or leaders of lay movements or large Catholic associations, or professors or organizers of catechetical and pastoral programs.

Here is the full list of experts invited to attend the upcoming world Synod of Bishops:

- Sr. Gill Goulding C.J., associate professor of systematic theology and spirituality at Regis College University of Toronto (Canada).
- Sr. Beatriz Acosta Mesa O.D.N. (Colombia), superior general of the Company of Our Lady Mary.
- Mauro Agosto, professor of Latin at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University.- Fr. Anthony Alaba Akinwale O.P., rector of the Dominican Institute of Ibadan (Nigeria).
- Fr. Luiz Alves de Lima S.D.B., member of the administrative office of the Society of Latin American Catechists (Brazil).- Fr. Antonio Aranda Lomena, professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Navarre (Spain).
- Fr. George Augustin S.A.C., professor of fundamental and dogmatic at the "Philosophisch-Theologischen Hochschule Vallendar" (Germany).- Fr. Paul Bere S.J., professor of the Old Testament and biblical languages at the Catholic University of West Africa (Burkina Faso).
- Br. Enzo Bianchi, prior of the monastic community of Bose (Italy).- Br. Enzo Biemmi F.S.F., president of the European Team of Catechists (Italy).
- Fr. Luca Bressan, episcopal vicar for culture, charity, the mission and social work of the archdiocese of Milan (Italy).- Sr. Sara Butler M.S.B.T. (U.S.A.), professor at the Ecclesiastical Faculty of St. Mary of the Lake University in Mundelein, and member of the International Theological Commission.
- Jessica Joy Candelario, coordinator for the pastoral care of young people at "Bukal Ng Tipan Pastoral Centre" (Philippines).- Anna Kai-Yung Chan, professor at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy, Hong Kong (China).
- Sr. Luisa Ciupa S.A.M.I., vice president of the Commission for Catechesis of the Greek-Catholic Ukrainain Church (Ukraine).- Fr. Eamonn Conway, head of the Theology and Religious Studies Department at Mary Immaculate College of the University of Limerick (Ireland).
- Fr. Jeremy Driscoll O.S.B. (U.S.A.), professor at the Theological Faculty of Rome's St. Anselm Pontifical Athenaeum, and professor of liturgy at the Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon.- Caroline Farey, professor at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham (England).
- Fr. Juan Javier Flores Arcas O.S.B. (Spain), rector of Rome's St. Anselm Pontifical Athenaeum.
- Msgr. Rafiq Hanna Khoury, professor of liturgy at the major seminary of Beit Jala (Palestinian Territories).- Sr. Anna Emmanuela Klich O.S.U., director of the Inter-Congregational Institute for Catechesis in Krakow (Poland).
- Fr. Jaime Alberto Mancera Casas, episcopal vicar for pastoral care in the archdiocese of Bogota (Colombia).- Msgr. Ermenegildo Manicardi, rector of Rome's "Almo Collegio Capranica", and professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Italy).
- Fr. Thomas Manjaly, professor of Sacred Scripture at Oriens Theological College and at the Inter-Diocesan Theologate for North East India in Shillong (India).- Ralph Martin, director of graduate theological programs in the new evangelisation at the Sacred Heart Seminary of Detroit (U.S.A.).
- Fr. Paolo Martinelli O.F.M. Cap. (Italy), president of the Franciscan Institute of Spirituality at the "Antonianum" Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome, and professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.- Fr. Krzysztof Mielnicki, director of the office for catechesis of the diocese of Drohiczyn (Poland).
- Sr. Paula Jean Miller F.S.E., professor at the Department of Theology of the University of St. Thomas in Huston (U.S.A.).- Fr. Joseph-Marie Ndi-Okalla, vice rector of the "Universite Catholique D'Afrique Centrale" in Yaounde (Cameroon).
- Fr. Godfrey Igwebuike Onah (Nigeria), vice rector of the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.- Rodolfo Papa, professor of art history and aesthetics at the Pontifical Urban University in Rome.
- Fr. Cleto Pavanetto S.D.B., professor emeritus of the Faculty of Christian and Classical Literature at the Pontifical Salesian University of Rome.- Edward Peters, professor of canon law and holder of the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary of Detroit (U.S.A.).
- Fr. Salvador Pie-Ninot (Spain), professor of fundamental theology and ecclesiology at the "Facoltat de Teologia de Catalunya", and professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.- Msgr. Antonio Pitta, professor at the Faculty of Theology of Rome's Pontifical Lateran University.
- Sr. Enrica Rosanna F.M.A, former under secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (Italy).- Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik S.J. (Slovenia), director of the "Ezio Aletti" Study Centre in Rome.
- Fr. Samir Khalil Samir S.J. (Lebanon), professor of Arab-Christian theology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, and professor of the history of Arabic culture and Islamology at the University of "St. Joseph de Beyrouth".- Fr. Kinkupu Leonard Santedi, professor at the Catholic University of Congo, president of the "Evangelii Nuntiandi" Foundation in Africa, and member of the International Theological Commission (Democratic Republic of Congo).
- Msgr. Pierangelo Sequeri (Italy), president of the Faculty of Theology of Northern Italy, and member of the International Theological Commission.- Thomas Soding, professor of biblical theology at the "Bergische" University of Wuppertal (Germany).
- Fr. Virginio Spicacci S.J., active in pastoral care and evangelisation in the archdiocese of Naples (Italy).- Fr. Mihaly Szentmártoni S.J. (Serbia), president of the Institute of Spirituality of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
- Fr. Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, professor of fundamental theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.- Petroc Willey, dean of graduate research at the Maryvale Institute of Birmingham (England).
The Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops has, likewise with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, appointed the following individuals as "Auditores" (or Auditros) for the forthcoming Synodal Assembly.
- Emile Amin Henein, Director of the "Truth" Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, (Egypt).
- Chiara Amirante, founder and president of the New Horizons Community (Italy).- Carl Albert Anderson (U.S.A.), supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus.
- Fr. Camilo Bernal Hadad C.I.M. (Colombia), superior general of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary.- Sr. Maria Antonieta Bruscato F.S.P. (Brazil), superior general of the Daughters of St. Paul.
- Guzman Carriquiry (Uruguay), secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.- Jose Maria Simon Castellví (Spain), president of the International Federation of the Association of Catholic Media F.I.A.M.C.
- Sr. Rekha (Mary Joseph) Chennattu R.A., professor of the New Testament at the Pontifical Institute of Philosophy and Religion in Pune (India).- Fr. Renato de Guzman S.D.B., chief assistant for pastoral care of the Grade School and High School Departments, Don Bosco Technical Institute in Makati City (Philippines).
- Florence De Leyritz, member of the Alpha France Association (France).- Marc De Leyritz, president of the Alpha France Association (France).
- Fr. Ari Luis do Valle Ribeiro, professor at the seminar of the diocese of Santo Amaro, and diocesan coordinator for catechesis (Brazil).- Mikhail Fateev, director of production at the "United Television" channel of St. Petersburg (Russian Federation).
- Sr. Inmaculada Fukasawa A.C.I. (Japan), superior general of the Handmaidens of the Sacred Heart of Jesus- Msgr. Enrique Glennie Graue, vicar general of the archdiocese of Mexico (Mexico).
- Francisco Jose Gomez Arguello Wirtz (Spain), co-founder of the Neo-Catechumenal Way.- Fr. Jesus Higueras Esteban, pastor of S. Maria de Cana, Madrid (Spain).
- Marco Impagliazzo (Italy), president of the Sant'Egidio Community.- Lydia Jimenez Gonzalez (Spain), director general of the "Cruzadas de Santa Maria" Secular Institute.
- Ernestine Sikujua Kinyabuuma, professor at the University Institute of Maria Malkia in Lubumbashi, and member of the "Focolari" Movement (Democratic Republic of Congo).- Joakim Kipyego Koech, head of the Communion and Liberation Movement in Kenya.
- Zoltan Kunszabo, permanent deacon of the archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest (Hungary).- Ewa Kusz (Poland), former president of the World Conference of Secular Institutes, C.M.I.S.
- Chantal Le Ricque, lay woman of the archdiocese of Paris (France).- Fr. Vinko Mamic O.C.D., president of the Union of Superiors Major in Croatia (Croatia).
- Curtis A. Martin, founder and president of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students - Focus (U.S.A.).- Salvatore Martinez, president for Italy of the Renewal in the Holy Spirit Movement (Italy).
- Sr. Nzenzili Lucie Mboma F.M.M. (Democratic Republic of Congo), executive director of the Service of Documentation and Study on Global Mission, S.E.D.O.S.- Marylee J. Meehan (U.S.A.), president of the International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medico-Social Assistants, C.I.C.I.A.M.S.
- Franco Miano, president of Italian Catholic Action.- Gisele Muchati, regional director of the New Families Movement (Syria).
- Peter Murphy, executive director of the Secretariat for Evangelisation and Catechesis of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.A.).- Patricia Ngozi Nwachukwu K.S.M., member of the Knights of St. Mulumba (Nigeria).
- Yong Suk Francis Xavier Oh, secretary general of the Catholic Lay Apostolate Council of Korea (Korea).- Fr. Piergiorgio Perini, president of the International Service Organisation for the "Cellule Parrocchiali di Evangelizzazione" (Italy).
- Rita María Petrirena Hernandez, head of the department for pastoral coordination of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba (Cuba).- Sr. Suzanne Louise Phillips F.M.M. (Australia), superior general of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary.
- Sr. Mary Prema Pierick M.C. (India), superior general of the Missionaries of Charity.- Jose Prado Flores, founder and international director of the St. Andrew Schools of Evangelisation (Mexico).
- Sr. Yvonne Reungoat F.M.A. (France), superior general of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, Salesian Sisters of St John Bosco. - Br. Alvaro Antonio Rodriguez Echeverria F.S.C. (Costa Rica), superior general of the Brothers of Christian Schools.
- Michel Roy (France), secretary general of "Caritas Internationalis".- Raid Sargi, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Damascus (Syria).
- Tommaso Spinelli, catechist of the youth group of the parish of Santa Melania Juniore in Rome.- Manoj Sunny, director and journalist, founding member of the Jesus Youth Movement (India).
- Br. Emili Turu Rofes F.M.S. (Spain), superior general of the Marist Brothers (Little Brothers of Mary).- Fr. Emmanuel Typamm C.M. (Cameroon), secretary general of the "Confederation des Conferences des Superieurs Majeurs D'Afrique et de Madagascar", Co.S.M.A.M.
- Maria Voce (Italy), president of the Focolari Movement.- Sr. Mary Lou Wirtz F.C.J.M. (U.S.A.), president of the International Union of Superiors General, U.I.S.G.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - The third volume of Pope Benedict XVI's book on Jesus of Nazareth should be published before Christmas, the Vatican said.

The volume, focusing on the Gospel accounts of Jesus' infancy and childhood, will be the third and final volume in the series of books the Pope has written "to make known the figure and message of Jesus," the Vatican said in a statement Sept. 21.

The statement announced a Vatican publishing house agreement with the Italian publisher Rizzoli to handle sales of the rights to the book in languages other than Italian and the German original. Herder, the Pope's longtime German publisher, will handle the original German-language text.

The Vatican's plan is to release the book simultaneously in the world's major languages, including English, in time for Christmas.

The first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, covering the period from Jesus' baptism to His Transfiguration, was published in 2007. The second volume, looking at His passion and death, came out in 2011.

Published in International
September 19, 2012

Emissary of hope

As war raged in Syria and an anti-Muslim film ignited violence across the Arab world, Pope Benedict calmly arrived last week in Lebanon as a “pilgrim of peace.”

The 85-year-old pontiff would have been excused if, citing age and security concerns, he’d postponed this trip. During his three-day stay, 25 people were injured and a man killed in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, during protests aimed at an American film that mocks Islam. The day after he left, missiles from Syrian jets hit Lebanese territory. The region, habitually unsafe, is particularly dangerous right now.

The purpose of the trip was to officially endorse the Apostolic Exhortation that was drafted following the 2010 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. That task could have been accomplished in the Vatican, of course, and transmitted live worldwide by video-conferencing and Internet technology. Yet the Pope dismissed that option.

Instead, he made the right and courageous decision to stand beside the Christians of the region and, by his physical presence, acknowledge the hardships they endure by living in nations that are often hostile to Christianity. That simple act alone says much about the Pope. Then, addressing some 20,000 young people from several Middle East countries, he urged them to be the vanguard to keep Christianity alive in the lands of its birth.

Middle East Christians, facing social and economic discrimination and seeking safety for their families, have been emigrating in droves to Europe and North America. At the current pace, Christianity might virtually disappear from the region in a generation. It is asking much of young Christians to endure financial and religious hardship, but that is exactly what the Pope implored. To be effective, the message had to be delivered in person.

“I am aware of the difficulties you face daily, on account of instability and a lack of security, and your sense of being alone and on the margins,” he said. But, he added, “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future.”

The Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation lays a common-sense framework for Middle East Christianity to endure. It emphasizes dialogue, respect, equality, tolerance and forgiveness among Christians, Muslims and Jews, while denouncing secularism and fundamentalism. The Pope urged young people to never be afraid or ashamed of being Christian and he affirmed their right to religious liberty, to live publicly as Christians and to participate fully in civil life.

The Pope arrived in Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace but departed as an emissary of inspiration and hope. He ignored the latest regional upheaval and chose boldly to stand among the anxious Christians to let them know in person that he will not abandon them. That may have been the most important message of all.

Published in Editorial

VATICAN CITY - A Vatican magistrate has set a trial date for two men formally indicted in connection with the so-called "VatiLeaks" scandal.

The first day of the public trial, which will be held in a Vatican courtroom, is set for Sept. 29, the Vatican announced Sept. 17.

Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict XVI's former personal assistant, was indicted in mid-August on charges of aggravated theft; Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer technician from the Vatican Secretariat of State, was indicted on minor charges of aiding Gabriele after he stole Vatican correspondence.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said a small pool of print reporters will be permitted to attend the proceedings, but still and television cameras will not be allowed access.

Gabriele and Sciarpelleti will face a panel of three Vatican judges, all of whom are laymen and professors at Italian universities. Vatican law, like Italian law, does not foresee the use of juries in criminal trials.

Gabriele, 46, faces a sentence of one to six years in prison. Under the terms of the Vatican's 1929 treaty with Italy, a person found guilty and sentenced to jail time by a Vatican court would serve his term in an Italian prison.

Lombardi had said in August that the charge against Sciarpelletti carried a "very light" sentence, which is unlikely to include jail time.

Gabriele was arrested May 23 after confidential letters and documents addressed to the Pope and other Vatican officials were found in his Vatican apartment. Many of the documents were the same as those featured in a January television program by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi and later published in a book by him. Most of the documents dealt with allegations of corruption, abuse of power and a lack of financial transparency at the Vatican.

A report released after a Vatican-led investigation of the affair said Gabriele told Vatican investigators he acted after seeing "evil and corruption everywhere in the Church." He said he had discussed with a spiritual advisor his concerns about the Church and what he was thinking when he took the documents.

Gabriele was questioned repeatedly over the two-month period he spent detained in a room in the Vatican police barracks. He was allowed to return, under house arrest, to his Vatican apartment with his wife and family July 21 and was to remain under house arrest until his trial ends.

Published in International

BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, reassuring them and urging them to promote peace through religiously inspired service to their societies.

"Your sufferings are not in vain," the pope told a crowd of at least 350,000 at a sweltering outdoor Mass at Beirut's City Center Waterfront Sept. 16. "Remain ever hopeful because of Christ."

In his homily, Pope Benedict commented on the day's reading from the Gospel of St. Mark, in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Jesus is a "Messiah who suffers," the pope said, "a Messiah who serves, and not some triumphant political savior."

Speaking in a region riven by sectarian politics, where party loyalties are often determined by religious affiliation, the pope warned that people can invoke Jesus to "advance agendas which are not his, to raise false temporal hopes in his regard."

Pope Benedict told his listeners, whose travails of war and economic insecurity he had acknowledged repeatedly throughout his visit, that Christianity is essentially a faith of redemptive suffering.

"Following Jesus means taking up one's cross and following in his footsteps along a difficult path which leads not to earthly power or glory but, if necessary, to self-abandonment, to losing one's life for Christ and the Gospel in order to save it," he said.

Yet Pope Benedict also cited another of the day's Mass readings, the epistle of St. James, to emphasize the spiritual value of "concrete actions" and works, concluding that "service is a fundamental element" of Christian identity.

Addressing a region where Christian-run social services, including schools and health care facilities, are extensively used by the Muslim majority, the pope stressed the importance of "serving the poor, the outcast and the suffering," and called on Christians to be "servants of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East."

"This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will," Pope Benedict said.

During the homily, the only sound was the pope's voice and its echo from the loudspeakers. Many people leaned over and bowed their heads with eyes closed, so they could concentrate more deeply.

Following the Mass, the pope formally presented patriarchs and bishops of the Middle East with a document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to the region's Christians. In the 90-page document, called an apostolic exhortation, the pope called for religious freedom and warned of the dangers of fundamentalism.

Sheltered from the sun only by white baseball caps and the occasional umbrella, people had already packed the city's central district by 8 a.m., almost an hour-and-a-half before the pope arrived in the popemobile, which took him to the foot of the altar. In temperatures that rose into the high 80s, the pope celebrated Mass under a canopy while bishops and patriarchs on either side wiped their brows and fanned themselves with programs.

Aside from the complimentary white pope caps, people in the crowd improvised versions of sun protection with torn pieces of corrugated boxes tied around heads and papal and Lebanese flags worn as bandanas.

George Srour, 38, estimated that 20,000 people came from Zahle in a convoy of chartered school buses, leaving at 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Mass.

"We Christians must be united and participate" in the pope's visit, Srour told Catholic News Service, "otherwise there will be no more Lebanon. It will become like Iraq, and now Syria, with all the Christians leaving."
- - -
Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

Published in International

BEIRUT - Peace will not come to the Middle East until its nations enjoy religious freedom, since only the free practice of faith can inspire the region's diverse peoples to unite around basic human values, Pope Benedict XVI said Sept. 15.

The pope addressed a multifaith gathering of Lebanon's political, religious and cultural leaders at the presidential palace in Baabda on the second day of a three-day visit to the country.

Pope Benedict's travels coincided with a wave of often-violent protests -- prompted by an American-made film denigrating Islam -- in at least a dozen Muslim countries. On Sept. 14, protesters denounced the papal visit during a demonstration in the Lebanese city of Tripoli; one person died and 25 were wounded in a clash that followed.

In his speech to the nation's leaders, the pope did not refer specifically to any of the region's many past or present conflicts, including the current civil war in neighboring Syria, but noted that the "centuries-old mix" of cultures and religions in the Middle East has not always been peaceful.

Peace requires a pluralistic society based on "mutual respect, a desire to know the other, and continuous dialogue," the pope said, and such dialogue in turn depends on consciousness of sharing fundamental human values, cherished and sustained in common by different religions. Thus, he argued, "religious freedom is the basic right on which many rights depend."

The pope spoke after meeting privately with Lebanon's president and prime minister, the president of parliament, and leaders of the country's four major Muslim communities: Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Alawite. Lebanon's population is estimated to be about 60 percent Muslim and almost 40 percent Christian, with both groups divided into many smaller communities.

In an apparent reference to the many Middle Eastern countries that restrict the practice or expression of religions other than Islam, the pope said that freedom must go beyond "what nowadays passes for tolerance," which he said "does not eliminate cases of discrimination" but sometimes "even reinforces them."

"The freedom to profess and practice one's religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone," he said.

Those remarks echoed portions of a document that Pope Benedict signed the previous night in Harissa and was to present formally Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut. The document is a collection of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops dedicated to Christians in the Middle East.

In his talk in Baabda, the pope did not explicitly address the topic of religiously inspired violence, but included a single reference to terrorism and the assertion that "authentic faith does not lead to death."

He also said that peace requires a shared respect for human life and dignity. Those values are undermined not only by war, he said, but by a range of social ills, including unemployment, corruption, "different forms of trafficking," and an "economic and financial mindset which would subordinate 'being' to 'having.'"

The pope also warned against ideologies that he said "undermine the foundations of our society" by "questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family" -- an apparent reference to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, political and religious leaders should promote a "culture of peace" through education, which he said would encourage a "conversion of heart" characterized above all by a willingness to forgive.

"Only forgiveness, given and received," the pope said, "can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace."

Published in International

BEIRUT (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI signed a major document calling on Catholics in the Middle East to engage in dialogue with Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim neighbors, but also to affirm and defend their right to live freely in the region where Christianity was born.

In a ceremony at the Melkite Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa Sept. 14, Pope Benedict signed the 90-page document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East. He was to formally present the document Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut.

A section dedicated to interreligious dialogue encouraged Christians to "esteem" the region's dominant religion, Islam, lamenting that "both sides have used doctrinal differences as a pretext for justifying, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization and even of persecution."

Yet in a reflection of the precarious position of Christians in most of the region today, where they frequently experience negative legal and social discrimination, the pope called for Arab societies to "move beyond tolerance to religious freedom."

The "pinnacle of all other freedoms," religious freedom is a "sacred and inalienable right," which includes the "freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one's beliefs in public," the pope wrote.

It is a civil crime in some Muslim countries for Muslims to convert to another faith and, in Saudi Arabia, Catholic priests have been arrested for celebrating Mass, even in private.

The papal document, called an apostolic exhortation, denounced "religious fundamentalism" as the opposite extreme of the secularization that Pope Benedict has often criticized in the context of contemporary Western society.

Fundamentalism, which "afflicts all religious communities," thrives on "economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion," the pope wrote. "It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons."

Many Christians in the Middle East have expressed growing alarm at the rise of Islamist extremism, especially since the so-called Arab Spring democracy movement has toppled or threatened secular regimes that guaranteed religious minorities the freedom to practice their faith.

Earlier in the day, the pope told reporters accompanying him on the plane from Rome that the Arab Spring represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a "renewed Arab identity." But he warned against the danger of forgetting that "human liberty is always a shared reality," and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

The apostolic exhortation criticized another aspect of social reality in the Middle East by denouncing the "wide variety of forms of discrimination" against women in the region.

"In recognition of their innate inclination to love and protect human life, and paying tribute to their specific contribution to education, health care, humanitarian work and the apostolic life," Pope Benedict wrote, "I believe that women should play, and be allowed to play, a greater part in public and ecclesial life."

In his speech at the document's signing, Pope Benedict observed that Sept. 14 was the feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, a celebration associated with the Emperor Constantine the Great, who in the year 313 granted religious freedom in the Roman Empire and was later baptized.

The pope urged Christians in the Middle East to "act concretely ... in a way like that of the Emperor Constantine, who could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination to enable them openly and freely to live their faith in Christ crucified, dead and risen for the salvation of all."

While the pope signed the document in an atmosphere of interreligious harmony, with Orthodox, Muslim and Druze leaders in the attendance at the basilica, the same day brought an outburst of religiously inspired violence to Lebanon.

During a protest against the American-made anti-Muslim film that prompted demonstrations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen earlier in the week, a group attempted to storm a Lebanese government building in the northern city of Tripoli. The resulting clashes left one person dead and 25 wounded, local media reported. According to Voice of Lebanon radio, Lebanese army troops were deployed to Tripoli to prevent further violence.

Mohammad Samak, the Muslim secretary-general of Lebanon's Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, told Catholic News Service that the violence had nothing to do with the pope's visit.

"All Muslim leaders and Muslim organizations -- political and religious -- they are all welcoming the Holy Father and welcoming his visit," Samak said. "I hope his visit will give more credibility to what we have affirmed as the message of Lebanon -- a country of conviviality between Christians and Muslims who are living peacefully and in harmony together for hundreds of years now."

Bishop Joseph Mouawad, vicar of Lebanon's Maronite Patriarchate, told CNS that the apostolic exhortation represents "a roadmap for Christians of the Middle East to live their renewal at all levels, especially at the level of communion."

The exhortation will also be a call to dialogue, he said, especially between Christians and Muslims.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said now church leaders in each Mideast country must "work on how to translate the exhortation into real life in our communities and also in our Muslim and Christian relationships."
- - -
Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

Published in International

BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon Sept. 14, saying that he came "as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men."

In his remarks at a welcoming ceremony at Beirut's airport, Pope Benedict praised Lebanon, with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims, for its distinctive record of "co-existence and respectful dialogue."

But speaking in a country that was devastated by a civil war from 1975 to 1990, the Pope acknowledged that Lebanese society's "equilibrium, which is presented everywhere as an example, is extremely delicate."

"Sometimes it seems about to snap like a bow which is overstretched or submitted to pressures," he said.

The Pope urged Lebanese to do everything possible to maintain this social equilibrium, which he said "should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs and consolidated with determination."

Earlier in the day, speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome, Pope Benedict addressed some of the turbulence currently afflicting the rest of the Middle East. He praised the so-called Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave that started in December 2010, leading to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and currently threatening the government of Syria, just across the border from Lebanon.

The Pope said the movement represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a "renewed Arab identity." But he warned against the danger of forgetting that "human liberty is always a shared reality," and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

Many Middle Eastern Christians fear that revolution has empowered Islamist extremism in the region, increasing the danger of attacks and persecution of the sort that Iraq's Christians have suffered since the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Asked about the current exodus of Christians from civil-war-torn Syria, the Pope noted that Muslims, too, have been fleeing the violence there. He went on to say that the best way to preserve the Christian presence in Syria was to promote peace, among other ways by restricting sales of military arms.

Speaking only three days after the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members, the Pope told reporters that he had never considered cancelling his visit to Lebanon out of security concerns, and that no one had advised him to do so.

Published in International

FRASCATI, Italy - Christians don't preach what the powerful want to hear or what will please a crowd; "their criteria is truth and justice," even if it garners no applause, Pope Benedict XVI said during an outdoor Mass.

The Pope celebrated Mass July 15 outside the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle in Frascati, about five miles from his summer villa at Castel Gandolfo.

Bishop Raffaello Martinelli of Frascati had worked with the Pope at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, specializing in catechesis. Pope Benedict told the estimated 8,000 people gathered in the square outside the cathedral that the bishop's "voice is very much present" in the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Published in Vatican

VATICAN CITY - Threats to religious liberty and other basic rights, the global financial crisis and crises in politics and education signal a "worrying crisis of democracy," said a note from the Vatican announcing Pope Benedict XVI's choice of a theme for World Peace Day 2013.

In a message reflecting on the theme, "Blessed are the peacemakers," the Pope will offer "an ethical reflection" on measures that the global community is considering or should adopt in response to the various crises afflicting many countries around the world, said a Vatican communique published July 16.

Published in Vatican

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy - Just as individual musicians in an orchestra turn dissonance into harmony through hard work, sacrifice and listening to one another, so, too, can the world's people turn conflict into peace, said Pope Benedict XVI.

The pope made his remarks following a July 11 concert performed in his honor by young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories and other Arab countries.

Published in Vatican

DUBLIN - One of the key architects of the Northern Ireland peace process has been honored by Pope Benedict XVI for his commitment to peace and reconciliation in the region.

John Hume, a founder-member of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party, was credited with initiating the political dialogue that brought about the 1994 cease-fire by the Irish Republican Army. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his trust in the Vatican's secretary of state and defended him against a barrage of "unjust criticism" in the Italian media.

In a letter addressed to "dear brother" Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 77, the Pope expressed his "profound appreciation for your discreet presence and wise counsel, which I have found particularly helpful over recent months."

The Vatican has had to face a number of challenges recently, including leaks of confidential correspondence to the Pope and the Secretariat of State; the arrest of the Pope's personal assistant in connection to the leaks; and the ouster of the Vatican bank's president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, for neglecting his duties amid worsening management problems.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI will present a papal document addressing the church's concerns in the Middle East, meet with representatives of local Christian and Muslim communities, and address political and cultural leaders on a three-day visit to Lebanon Sept. 14-16.

Pope Benedict's primary task on the trip will be to present a document, called an apostolic exhortation, based on the deliberations of a special synod of bishops held at the Vatican in 2009.

That two-week meeting, which was attended by 185 bishops, most of them from the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy See, focused on the precarious circumstances of 5.7 million Catholics in 16 Middle Eastern countries.

Published in International