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Pope encourages Christians in Middle East to persevere

Pope Benedict XVI told about 20,000 followers in an open air Mass on Sunday that Christians in the Middle East are “deeply touched by difficulties and uncertainties” but that they must be strong in their faith to counter religious extremism.

The pope’s message on the final day of his pilgrimage to Jordan was for Christians to persevere as their populations decline in a Middle East that offers limited economic opportunity and is torn by violence and radicalism.

He called on Roman Catholics to reach across religious divides to make peace.

“May you never forget the great dignity which derives from your Christian heritage, or fail to sense the loving solidarity of all your brothers and sisters in the church throughout the world,” said the 82-year-old pontiff, who leaves Jordan today for the next leg of his trip, a visit to Israel and the West Bank.

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During Sunday’s Mass in Amman International Stadium, Benedict turned his attention to Christians in the Holy Land, whose numbers have been declining for decades.

In Jordan, for example, Christians accounted for 30% of the population in 1950.

They make up less than 4% today.

Most of those who left were economic emigres, but Christians have also grown uneasy over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the recent rise of Islamic extremism.

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Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled to Jordan since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and subsequent sectarian violence and persecution of religious minorities in Iraq.

The pope said that to remain strong, Christians must strengthen ties among themselves and build good relations with other faiths.

“Fidelity to your Christian roots, fidelity to the church’s mission in the Holy Land, demands of each of you a particular kind of courage: the courage of conviction, born of personal faith, not mere social convention or family tradition,” Benedict said.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com


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