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Pope launches Middle East bishops group

By the CNN Wire Staff
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bishops group will focus on plight of Christians in the Middle East
  • Pope calls for "urgent" effort to resolve tensions in the region while visiting Cyprus
  • Vatican says interfaith strife arises from Muslims making "no distinction between religion and politics"
  • U.S.-based Muslim advocate says Islamic law has had "great respect for Christians"
  • Cyprus is divided between predominately-Christian Greek south and predominately-Muslim, Turkish-controlled north

(CNN) -- Pope Benedict XVI launched a "special assembly" of bishops focused on the Middle East on Sunday, during a visit to the divided island of Cyprus.

The group aims to "help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs," he said in announcing the group, a part of the Catholic Church's Synod of Bishops.

A Vatican statement outlining the church's position on Christians in the Middle East, introduced by the Pope on Sunday and On the Vatican website, says the interfaith strife arises from Muslim theocracies.

"Often times, relations between Christians and Muslims are difficult, principally because Muslims (make) no distinction between religion and politics, thereby relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered non-citizens ... The key to harmonious living between Christians and Muslims is to recognize religious freedom and human rights," the statement says.

The 51-page document says lamented that with the exception of Turkey, in countries with a Muslim majority, Islam is generally the religion of the state and the principal source of legislation, inspired by sharia, or Islamic law.

"In some countries, the State is Islamic and sharia is applied in not only private life but also society, even for non-Muslims, with the consequent deprivation of human rights. Islamic States generally do not recognize religious freedom and freedom of conscience," the statement says.

"Furthermore, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, attacks against Christians are increasing almost everywhere."

It calls for "joint action" against extremists "clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike."

"Political Islam includes different religious groups who wish to impose an Islamic way of life in Arab, Turkish or Iranian society and on all those who live there, Muslims and non-Muslims alike," the statement says. "These Muslim groups maintain that the cause of every evil has been the failure to follow Islamic teaching. Their solution then is a radical return to Islam, giving rise to the slogan: 'Islam is the solution.'...For this purpose, some people don't hesitate to revert to violence."

The pope called for "an urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, especially in the Holy Land, before such conflicts lead to greater bloodshed," according to a prepared copy of his remarks released in advance by the Vatican.

A leading U.S.-based Muslim advocate said, "This kind of rhetoric isn't helpful in building relations between Christian and Muslim communities worldwide."

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said there appear to be some misconceptions.

"Islamic law has had great respect for Christians and that has been demonstrated throughout history," he said. "The Prophet (Mohammad) himself had good relations with Christians."

Pope Benedict is on a three-day trip to the Mediterranean island, which is divided between a predominately-Christian Greek south and a predominately-Muslim, Turkish-controlled north, which has declared itself an independent country. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognized internationally.

CNN's Mark Morgenstein contributed to this report.