BY CINDY WOODEN
TEE POPE has encouraged Christians in the Middle East not to desert their home countries in spite of mounting persecutions.
He said it would be better if they remained in the region and worked for peace.
Benedict XVI also told the region's Christian communities: "I deeply hope that providence will ensure that circumstances allow me to make a pilgrimage to the land made holy by the events of salvation history."
While awaiting his visit to the Holy Land, the Pope asked Christians to make "gestures of friendship and goodwill" which will contribute to peace.
In a Christmas message, Pope Benedict said his thoughts and prayers naturally turned toward the Middle East at that time and "especially those countries marked by strong tensions and frequently subjected to manifestations of brutal violence that, in addition to causing great destruction, strike unarmed and innocent people without pity".
The growing tensions and violence in the region, he said, "naturally are giving rise to recrimination and anger and predispose souls to ideas of retaliation and vengeance".
Christians must not give in to such feelings, the Pope said, nor should they engage in the counterproductive exercise of trying to figure out which community has suffered the most. "Suffering is common to everyone," he said. Only by recognising the suffering of the other, listening to their stories, having "a bit of trust in the humanity of the other," and making a commitment to alleviate the suffering can peace start to take hold in the region, the Pope said.
"In the present circumstances, marked by few lights and many shadows, it is a consolation and hope for me to know that the Christian communities of the Middle East, of whose suffering I am well aware, continue to be living and active communities, determined to witness their faith," he added.
Pope Benedict said he knew the real hardships and safety concerns that are pushing so many Christians to leave the region, but he said the holy sites of the region risk becoming an "archaeological area" if there are no local Christians witnessing a living faith.
The Pope told the region's Christians that even the smallest kind gestures can help promote understanding and peace. But, he said, "peace is a good that is so great and urgent that it justifies even great sacrifices on the part of everyone."
Pope Benedict urged Christians to be the first to offer and to accept forgiveness so that past hurts do not continue to make future hope impossible.
In addition, he asked leaders to show "sensitivity, attention and concrete closeness" with the region's suffering people.