Pope Hears From Bishops About Christians Leaving The Middle East

Christian leaders from all over the Middle East have gathered in Rome. They represent different religious sects and denominations from a variety of mainly Arab states, but they are all facing the same crisis: Their Christian flocks are fleeing the land where the faith was born.

Pope Benedict convened the special meeting of bishops, or Synod, to try and stem the tide. But the statistics of recent years tell their own depressing story.

Since 2003 in Iraq over 500,000 Christians have fled the effects of war and Islamic extremism.

In Lebanon thousands have left the country after decades of civil war.

And in the Palestinian Territories, the Pope heard of a steady exodus of the faithful fleeing the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In the last 40 years in the Palestinian Territories alone the Christian population has plummeted from almost 20 percent to less than 2 percent of the total population. And this in the land where Jesus was born, preached and died.

The Rev. David Neuhaus, a Catholic priest from Jerusalem, told ABC News in Rome that, "We are speaking about the oldest Christian communities, we are talking about the mother church. It would be particularly dramatic if one day those places could no longer speak the language of Jesus."

In The Holy Family Church in the West Bank city of Ramallah the Rev. Faysal Hijazin boasts a healthy congregation of over 300 worshippers each Sunday. But everyone knows someone who has left or is planning to leave for better work and better security.

In this week's sermon Hijazin urged those left behind to stay.

"We must deal with the hardships, we must remain involved in every walk of life, we must be resilient. We must not run away," he said.

In Rome the bishops heard that a combination of deteriorating security, increased religious extremism, Christians having smaller families and dire economic prospects were all forcing Christians to emigrate.

They heard fears that with that departure might come a vacuum which might be filled by yet more extremism.

Rome Tries to Stem the Flight of Christians From Mideast

"The Christians have had a disproportionately great influence on their societies and I think they tend to be a little bit of an educated elite," Monsignor Robert Stern told ABC News outside the Synod. "It would be a great impoverishment if they were all gone."

So far the bishops have urged greater dialogue with both Muslims and Jews, an end to the Israeli Palestinian conflict with the creation of a Palestinian state, and a greater determination from Christians despite all their problems.

They are desperately hoping to stem the hemorrhage of Christianity from the Holy Land before Christians face final extinction.

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