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In Wake Of Violence, Pope Addresses Middle East

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Pope Benedict XVI said Mass in Lebanon Sunday during his first visit to the Middle East, which is seeing dwindling Christian numbers and where Christians fear Islamists will gain power now that secular dictators have fallen.

Lebanon has the region's second-largest Christian population, after Egypt. The pope spent his three-day visit promoting peace and religious tolerance.

He spent much of his time in Lebanon meeting church leaders from around the Middle East. He was welcomed by Muslim leaders, too. The pope urged Christians and Muslims to join together in an effort to end the violence in the region, particularly in neighboring Syria.

At a ceremony in northern Lebanon, the pope told young Syrians he admired their courage. Christian youth leaders told the pope they worry about the rise of fundamentalism in the region.

Speaking after he delivered a prayer in French, the pope urged Christians to remain here in the Middle East. His comments come amid what some see as an exodus of Christians from the region. The Catholic Church says Christians in the Middle East have dropped from about 20 percent of the total population to 5 percent.

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the resulting violence there, including a deadly attack on a Christian church in 2010.

In Egypt, Christians came under attack after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and many are wary of the new Islamist government. And in Syria, the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad, and the civil conflict that has followed, has Christians worried that any new government might not protect minorities.

One young Syrian Christian, who didn't want to give his name, said it might be difficult for Syrian Christians to remain in their homes, especially in areas where those homes are coming under constant shelling by regime troops, or attack by rebel forces. But he agrees with the pope that Christians should not give up.

"This is our country, this is our land. Our grandfathers stayed here through thousands of years," he said. "Absolutely we won't give up and we won't leave our land and our country."

The pope also spoke of religious tolerance, a message that was particularly resonant these days as protests have swept the region this past week over an anti-Muslim film.

But this is the same pope who in 2006 recited a 14 century criticism of Prophet Muhammad and sparked similar protests.

In northern Lebanon, demonstrators who turned violent and burned a KFC and a Hardee's over the weekend, angry at the U.S. for allowing the anti-Muslim film to be made, turned their anger on the pope.

"No more insults to Islam," they shouted. "We don't want the pope."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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