Pope Benedict XVI issues plea for Middle East Christians

popebenedictxvi__1399732c1.jpgPope Benedict XVI celebrated mass with tens of thousands of worshippers from the dwindling Christian churches of the Middle East today, urging them to maintain their presence in region. By Richard Spencer in Amman
Pope Benedict XVI addresses Muslim leaders at King Hussein Bin Talal mosque in
During the mass in a sports stadium in the Jordanian capital Amman, the Pope made a special point of meeting representatives of the Iraqi Christian community, much of which has fled into exile since the 2003 invasion.

He also spoke of the challenges faced by the Christian church in the region
While Christians play an accepted role in several countries, such as Jordan, their presence is shrinking fast due to emigration and lower birth rates.

“The strong Christian families of these lands are a great legacy handed down from earlier generations,” he said to the crowd of about 30,000. “May the courage of Christ our shepherd inspire and sustain you in your efforts….

to maintain the Church’s presence in the changing social fabric of these ancient lands.”

Christians make up less than three per cent of Jordan’s population, which has been swelled by up to a million refugees from the war in Iraq to between six and seven million in recent years.

Among the refugees are believed to be 40,000 of Iraq’s Christian population, mainly Chaldean Catholics.

“There is a war on the Christians in Iraq,” said Dina Nasef, who fled three months ago with her family and whose daughter was receiving her first communion yesterday. “Men put a gun to my head and a gun to my husband’s head – there was no reason why. But it is not safe for Christians.”

Maryam Ibrahim, 26, an ophthamologist, said she left the day after she escaped from an attempted kidnap while on her way home from the hospital where she worked.

“They grabbed my clothes and tore the cross off my neck and threw it on the ground,” she said. “My driver, a Muslim, tried to protect me but was shot in the head.”

Just at that moment, though, an American patrol drove past and scared her attackers away.

“They say it is safe now but it isn’t,” she added. “My friend, a doctor, went back six months ago. She was kidnapped on her way back from the hospital, raped and murdered.”

Many Iraqi Christians are now seeking refuge in America or Europe, where they are joining established communities of Christian Arabs whose generally higher levels of education and western orientation have for decades made emigration an attractive option.

Other Christian leaders present today included Greek Othodox, Melkites, Egyptian Copts, and Maronites, as well as Catholic groups who arrived by the bus load from across Syria and Lebanon and well as Jordan itself.

The Pope appealed to them to “build bridges” with other religions and cultures, but he also appeared to continue a theme of attacking extremism when he said they had a special responsibility to bear witness to “respect for women”.

This afternoon he was travelling to Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, where recent archaeological discoveries have lent weight to belief that this was the site of Jesus’ baptism. Tomorrow he embarks on the most controversial part of his Middle East tour, flying by helicopter to Tel Aviv before visiting Israel and the West Bank.