VATICAN CITY—Pope Benedict XVI denounced “terrorist ideologies” that spur violence in God’s name as he opened a meeting Monday of bishops from around the Middle East.
Benedict said such ideologies were based on false gods and should be “unmasked.”
The pontiff made the off-the-cuff remarks at the opening working session of the meeting, or synod, which was called to address problems the minority Catholic Church faces in the largely Muslim region.
The meeting has drawn 185 participants, including nine patriarchs of the Mideast’s ancient Christian churches and representatives from 13 other Christian communities. A rabbi and two Muslim clerics will address the meeting as well.
On Monday, attention focused on the decision by Israel to require new citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a “Jewish and democratic” state—a bill criticized by Arab Israelis as racist and a provocation.
The Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, Antonios Naguib, who is running the synod, called the decision a “flagrant contradiction” since Israel likes to call itself not just the most democratic but the only democratic state in the region.
“You cannot announce, publish and affirm to be a democratic state and a civil democracy then at the same time say ‘in our democracy we require such things,'” Naguib told reporters. “I see it is a flagrant contradiction.”
“In the logic of classic democracies, that doesn’t work,” he said.
Benedict summoned the bishops to Rome to help address a major flight of Christians from their traditional homes because of war, conflict and economic problems. In Iraq alone, Catholics represented 2.89 percent of the population in 1980; by 2008 they were just .89 percent.
An influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly women from Africa and Asia who work in service industries in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, has helped offset their numbers. But it has also created new pastoral issues for the church in countries where freedom of religion is limited.
As it currently stands, Catholics represent just 1.6 percent of the region’s population, according to Vatican statistics. Christians as a whole represent 5.62 percent.
In his remarks to the synod participants, Benedict lamented the forces at play in the world that “enslave” men and threaten the world, citing drugs as well as “terrorist ideologies.”
“The make violence apparently in the name of God, but it’s not God: These are false divinities that must be unmasked. They are not God.”
In a paper outlining the synod’s work, Naguib outlined the challenges facing Christians in the region, particularly the rise of “political” and fanatical Islam.
“This phenomenon seeks to impose the Islamic way of life on all citizens, at times using violent methods, thus becoming a threat which we must face together,” he said.
Lamenting the brain drain of Christians from the region, he warned that further emigration could seriously affect the future in places of important Christian tradition, such as the Holy Land and Iraq.
He also called on churches in countries that haven’t traditionally had a Christian presence to make a greater effort to serve the new Asian and African immigrants.
“Oftentimes they are faced with injustice and abuse to the point that international laws and conventions are violated,” he said, in calling for greater pastoral, social and charitable programs to help them.