Christians began a three-day prayer and fasting period after Islamist Boko Haram militants kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria and desperate parents joined the search in a remote forest.

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TIMBUKTU, Mali - In this ancient city that has become synonymous with the ends of the earth, the recent terrorism of Islamist extremists belies long years of peaceful Muslim-Christian coexistence.

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BKERKE, Lebanon - Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians in the Middle East not to flee violence and economic insecurity through emigration, but to draw strength from their faith and make peace in their troubled region.

The pope spoke to some 20,000 young people from several Middle Eastern countries gathered outside the residence of the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke in a celebration that included fireworks, spotlights, singing and prayer.

The crowd began to form hours before Pope Benedict arrived in the popemobile a little after 6 p.m. After passing through the metal detector and the gates of Bkerke, visitors were greeted by Scouts who gave them an olive branch to wave to welcome the pope and a knapsack containing water, snacks, an Arabic Bible and the new edition of the youth catechism -- "YouCat," a gift from Pope Benedict.

A giant rosary fashioned from yellow and blue balloons hovered over the crowd, its colors blending in with the cloudless sky and Mediterranean Sea below the hillside.

Pope Benedict asked young Christians, whose population is diminishing across the Middle East, not to abandon their homelands.

"Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future," he said. "You are meant to be protagonists of your country's future and to take your place in society and in the church."
Warning against escapism, the pope urged his listeners not to "take refuge in parallel worlds like those, for example, of the various narcotics or the bleak world of pornography."

He acknowledged that online social networks are interesting, but said they "can quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual." He called money a "tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart."

Offering encouragement, the pope invoked the inspiration of the first Christians, inhabitants of the Middle East who "lived in troubled times and their faith was the source of their courage and their witness."

"Courageously resist everything opposed to life: abortion, violence, rejection of and contempt for others, injustice and war," Pope Benedict said. "In this way you will spread peace all around you."

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his welcoming speech, told the pope, "These youths suffer from social, political and economic crises that negatively affect their faith and cause some of them to lose the real meaning of their Christian identity."

Two youths spoke to the pope, basing their remarks on input from young Christians from all over Lebanon.

The Middle East's young Christians, they said, "yearn for peace and dream of a future without wars, a future where we will play an active role, where we work with our brothers, the young people of different religions to build a civilization of love ... homelands where human rights and freedom are respected, where each one's dignity is protected."

"We are looking for a culture of peace," they said, calling for the condemnation of violence. "We want to be living bridges, mediators of dialogue and cooperation."

The crowd cheered when the pope said he did not forget the Syrian people, stressing that he is always praying for them and that he is glad there were some Syrian people at the gathering.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.

"The pope is saddened by your sufferings and your grief," he said, his first public reference to the Syrian conflict since he arrived in Lebanon. "It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war."

Pope Benedict also offered a word of thanks to the Muslims in attendance, urging them to work with Christians to build up the region.

"Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society," the pope said.

After young people presented the prayer intentions, fireworks erupted from all corners of Bkerke, taking the pope by surprise. Sparklers cascaded from the roof of the outdoor chapel facing the stage, lighting up the sky.

At the conclusion of the gathering, spotlights atop the chapel illuminated the courtyard. The huge inflatable globe that had been placed earlier under the cross was sent airborne, with young people bouncing it like a volleyball.

A light show flashed "take-home" reminders on the walls: "love," "missionaries of peace," "pray."

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OTTAWA- A letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to Pakistan's High Commissioner is among many interventions being cited for the release from prison of a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy.

International Christian Voice (ICV) chairman Peter Bhatti credits the bishops' letter, among other signs of international support, for the release of Rimsha Masih on bail Sept. 7. The 11-year-old girl with Down syndrome was imprisoned Aug. 16 after being accused of burning a Quran. Since her arrest, a Muslim cleric was detained Sept. 2 on suspicion of fabricating evidence against Masih.

"She just came out from bail," said Bhatti, the brother of Shahbaz Bhatti, the assassinated former Minorities Minister and first Christian in the Pakistan government's cabinet. "Her case is not finished yet, and we're not sure how long it will go."

In the meantime, she and her family continue to need protection from extremists who have threatened to burn the family alive and also threatened her 1,500-member Christian community, most of whom have gone into hiding, he said.
"I would like to thank the Canadian Catholic bishops' conference for intervening in this issue," Bhatti said.

The CCCB's human rights committee chairman sent a letter Aug. 31 to the High Commissioner of Pakistan expressing concern for Masih.

"This serious situation has prompted the President of Pakistan, His Excellency Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, to call for an investigation," wrote Bishop Francois Lapierre to High Commissioner Mian Gul Akbar Zeb. "We welcome this gesture, given the circumstances not only of the girl herself but also of Pakistan's religious minorities, including Christians, who are regularly the target of fundamentalist groups, in particular regarding anti-blasphemy laws.

"This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption by all States in 1992 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons from National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities," Lapierre wrote on behalf of the human rights committee. "In view of this declaration and the initiative of the president of Pakistan, we ask your government to take the necessary measures to find a solution that ensures this girl's freedom, peace and security."

A copy of the letter was sent to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird who has also publicly expressed concern for the girl's plight as well as those of others targeted through the blasphemy laws.

Bhatti said he was thankful for the interventions not only of the bishops and Baird, but also Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and many other Members of Parliament who have continued to put pressure on Pakistan to repeal its draconian blasphemy laws.

Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to the blasphemy laws and now his brother Paul Bhatti, an eye surgeon, has been serving as National Harmony Minister in Pakistan's government as well as chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which put up the bail for Masih.

ICV is holding a fundraiser in Toronto Sept. 14 to raise money for Masih, her family and members of their community. For information e-mail info@internationalchristianvoice.com.

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VATICAN CITY - The case against a Pakistani Christian girl accused of blasphemy seemed to take a turn in her favour after a Muslim cleric was arrested on suspicion of fabricating evidence against her.

Khalid Jadoon Chishti, the imam or prayer leader who has accused Rimsha Masih of burning pages of the Muslim holy book, was taken into police custody Sept. 2. According to a police official quoted by the Associated Press, witnesses claim the imam tore pages from a Quran and planted them along with burned pieces of paper in the girl's bag.

Rimsha has been in police custody since Aug. 18. Her parents said she is 11 years old and has Down syndrome; a court appointed physician found that she was about 14 and is developmentally delayed.

A Pakistan court delayed her bail hearing until Sept. 1, but postponed it again until Sept. 7 after the judge in the case changed.

The girl's lawyer, Tahir Naveed, told Vatican Radio Sept. 3 that with the arrest of the Muslim cleric, "it is no secret that Rimsha is innocent. This shows that there was a conspiracy."

Naveed said Rimsha's case is just the latest instance of someone misusing Pakistan's strict anti-blasphemy laws to intimidate or persecute others.

"After the arrest of Imam Jadoon, everyone is talking and reflecting on the fact that this law can be used improperly and even abused," Naveed said.

Capuchin Father Francis Nadeem, co-ordinator of the National Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Lahore, said the charges against the girl appeared to be part of a plot by a local "land mafia."
"Unscrupulous criminals intend to wrest land from Christians and drive them out from Mehrabadi, a suburb of Islamabad where Rimsha's family lives," Nadeem told the Vatican's missionary news agency Fides. "This is why they made up the case, blaming an innocent child."

Accusations that a Christian had burned the Quran drew an angry crowd, prompting hundreds of Christian families to flee the neighbourhood.

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