BEIRUT - Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs of the Middle East denounced attacks on Christians and called upon the international community to work toward eradicating terrorist groups.

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NAIROBI, Kenya - An Islamist group has gained ground in the northeastern Libyan city of Benghazi, declaring it an Islamic territory and raising fears that radical Islamist militias may spread in the rest of Africa.

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BEIRUT - Mideast Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs denounced the "total international silence" on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and called for Muslim religious authorities to issue fatwas, or legal edicts, banning attacks against Christians and "other innocents."

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Updated 07/16/14

AMMAN, Jordan - Two Iraqi nuns and three orphans kidnapped in late June have been released safely, according to the Christian rights group Middle East Concern.

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While the violence escalates in Israel and Gaza, a movement is taking hold that unites Jews, Muslims and others in a campaign for peace.

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I met a man in Bethlehem who has dedicated his life to compassion, justice, enlightenment and hope. He respects God and tradition and loves the poorest and the weakest among human beings. And he refuses to go to Church.

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TAYBEH, ISRAEL - Christians in Taybeh know they are special — unique in fact. Taybeh is the last fully and completely Christian village in the Middle East. 

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BETHLEHEM - The Vatican has been increasingly concerned about the possibility the Middle East will become a kind of Disneyland for Christians, full of interesting Christian history, architecture and archeology that will attract tourists, but virtually empty of Christians. 

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis will be accompanied on his first visit to the Middle East by Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud — two friends from Buenos Aires.

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November 28, 2012

Keys to peace

As this editorial is being written, the guns are silent in Israel and Gaza. But for how long? Hours, days, weeks? Maybe months, at best?

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It is very difficult to make sense of the latest violence in the Middle East. And as we embark on another Advent season, it makes one wonder about the long-term viability of Christian communities in the Church’s birthplace in the Middle East, whether Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the region.

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VATICAN CITY - Greeting hundreds of Christians from Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged their presence in the Middle East and launched a fresh appeal for peace in the region.

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WASHINGTON - Some of Egypt's Christians feel uncomfortable with Islamists in power, but there is greater freedom of speech than before the revolution, said the Pope's ambassador to the Middle Eastern country.

"I think there is a greater freedom now, though they accuse the present regime of also clamping down on people, on trying to control the press ... so they say that the president is becoming a pharaoh," the Vatican nuncio, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, told Catholic News Service.

"Christians are feeling uncomfortable and certainly the Salafi group," an ultraconservative sect of Islam, "is showing ... disrespect for Christians," he said during a mid-October visit to Washington. "There are complaints and, I would say, they are genuine complaints."

The archbishop said that often what begins as a conflict over property or family affairs turns religious and "ends up with people having their houses burned or their shops destroyed or their place of worship also attacked."

"It's easy to arouse a group of Muslims against the Christians, and there can be also a reaction on the Christian side," he said, adding, "The thing is that people are rather hot-tempered and they don't reason very much before they react."

When there is a problem, he said, Christians feel "that the security forces don't come in time, they always come late, and, very often, they hold reconciliation sessions and the Christians are always the losers.

"They would prefer to have people brought to trial and to be condemned ... to have their full rights," he said.

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, an Egyptian military council assumed broad powers. Sixteen months later, Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected Egypt's new president.

During those 16 months, the Church sponsored seminars and lectures to encourage awareness of parties and issues. Cairo's justice and peace commission also sponsored candidate forums, the archbishop said.

Morsi has finished his first 100 days in office, and critics say he has not kept most of his promises about what he would achieve in that time.

Egyptians also are awaiting a court ruling on whether the assembly drafting the country's new constitution is legal. Members of Parliament chose members of the assembly, and some Egyptians argue that the assembly does not reflect all sectors of society. The court has said it will issue its ruling Oct. 23.

Fitzgerald said these were signs of emerging democracy.

"Certainly people are ready to criticize the president and to say 'Look, you promised many things, and you're not fulfilling your promises,' ” he said, noting that probably would not have happened before the revolution.

He said he is trying to encourage Christians to participate in the new democracy, although some express fear for what the future holds for their children.

"My own message to them has been, look, there is a new spirit of democracy, and you have to build on that. Though the Islamists are in power now, this doesn't mean to say that they will always be in power. This depends on you," he said.

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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.

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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."
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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

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