Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a special mass in Saint Peter's Basilica, presiding over the opening of a two-week Synod of Bishops of the Middle East. The purpose of the synod is to reflect on the present and future of the faithful and the populations in the Middle East.
For two weeks, bishops will be discussing problems in the Middle East. Among the issues are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, strife in Iraq, radical Islamism, regional economic crises and the divisions among the region's many Christian churches.
More than 170 Catholic bishops from Islamic countries, as well as Roman officials, non-Catholic Christians and academic experts will discuss the future of Christian communities in the Middle East. Representatives of the Jewish and Muslim faiths have been invited to address the gathering.
Pope Benedict presided over a mass Sunday to mark the opening of the "Special Assembly for the Middle East" in Saint Peter's Basilica. The unprecedented meeting will be held in Vatican City from October 10th to 24th.
In his homily, the pope said the Middle East is the land of the exodus and of the return from exile, the land where Jesus lived, died and resurrected, the cradle of the church, established to bring the Gospel of Christ to the borders of the world.
And we too as believers, the pope said, look at the Middle East, in the prospect of the history of salvation.
This, the pope said, is the interior feeling that guided me in my apostolic visits to Turkey, the Holy Land - Jordan, Israel and Palestine - and Cyprus, where I was able to see closely the joys and concerns of the Christian communities.
Conditions for Christians vary from country to country in the Middle East, but the overall picture is dramatic. Christians made up around 20 percent of the region's population a century ago, but now account for only about five percent.
During the mass, prayers were recited in English, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic and Farsi.
The pope said he welcomed the proposal by the patriarchs and bishops for this assembly to reflect on the present and future of the faithful and the populations in the Middle East.
The official objective of the synod is to strengthen Christian identity and promote ecumenism in Muslim countries. Significant issues are acquiring religious freedom - to be understood as freedom of worship and instituting human rights education.