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Pope Condemns Mideast Violence, Express Concern for Christians in the Region

Pope John Paul the Second Thursday again condemned the violence in the Middle East, and said that Christians are being crushed under the weight of Israeli and Palestinian extremism. The pope made the comment at the start of a meeting in the Vatican of Catholic leaders from the Holy Land.

Pope John Paul called the one-day meeting of top church officials from the Holy Land to discuss the future of Christians in the area and express his concern at the recent developments there.

The pope told the gathering that Christians in the Middle East "seem to be crushed by the weight of two different extremisms" that are, quote, "disfiguring the face of the Holy Land."

The pope, who visited Jerusalem last year, told the church leaders that he would like to see the Holy Land's Jews and Muslims walking side by side with Christians in what he described as a "united pact of love." That pact, he said, "would give back to the Holy Land its true face of being a crossroads of peace and a land of peace."

The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, spoke after the pope. He said that the wounds of the Middle East are deep ones, the result of more than 50 years of tensions. "Our first duty," the cardinal said, "is to cooperate to re-establish a climate of peace between Israelis and Palestinians," and remind all sides that it is both possible and necessary to live in the same region with equal rights and duties.

The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, said in an interview with a Catholic television station on Thursday that the Vatican wanted to try to increase the presence of Christians in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Right now, they make up only about three percent of the population. The Vatican fears that, if nothing is done, Christians may become a rarity in the land where Christ was born.