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Pope Appeals to End Bloodshed in Middle East


During the final hours of a three-day pilgrimage in Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI called for an urgent international effort to resolve tensions in the Middle East.

Several-thousand pilgrims chanting "Viva o Papa" braved the heat in Nicosia to attend mass at one of the city's indoor sports stadiums.

At the mass, the highlight of Pope Benedict's three-day trip to Cyprus, the pontiff called for a new focus on Christians in the region who suffer discrimination for their beliefs.

The Catholic Church is concerned that much of the Middle East has become a hostile environment for the region's dwindling Christian populations, many of whom face harassment, violence and persecution.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Holy Land, Iraq and other Middle Eastern territories in recent years.

After the mass, the pontiff distributed a working paper ahead of a synod for Middle Eastern bishops in Rome in October, which stated "The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is creating difficulties in everyday life, inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life."

On Saturday, the pope had an unscheduled encounter with Sheikh Nazim, the 89-year-old head of the Islamic Naqshbandi sect based in the Turkish-controlled north of Cyprus.

The two men held a warm, but brief conversation before exchanging gifts. Nazim told reporters "may Allah grant him a good life here and hereafter".

Benedict left the island promising to pray for the people of Cyprus, who have lived in an ethnically divided state for 36-years.

He had not referred directly to the Cyprus conflict in his speeches since arriving Friday in Paphos. "I have seen for myself something of the sad division of the island, as well as learning of the loss of a significant part of a cultural heritage which belongs to all humanity. I have also listened to Cypriots from the north who wish to return in peace to their homes and places of worship, and I have been deeply moved by their pleas," he said.

Even though this visit had none of the pomp and ceremony of an average Papal trip, commentators are hailing Benedict's three-day visit to Cyprus as a resounding success, in which he met Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Maronites.

Fears that there would be demonstrations against the papal visit failed to materialize, with only a handful of Orthodox Christians holding a peaceful demonstration.

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