JERUSALEM : May 12, 2009. (AFP) The survival of Christian communities in the Middle East is of "vital importance," Pope Benedict XVI told a gathering of Catholic bishops in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
"Catholic communities in the Holy Land... in their faith and devotion, are like lighted candles illuminating the holy places that were graced by the presence of Jesus our living Lord," he said.
"This presence is of vital importance for the good of society as a whole," the pontiff told an assembly of bishops from several Catholic denominations in the room in the Old City where Jesus is believed to have held the Last Supper.
Concern over the fate of the region's rapidly dwindling Christian communities has been at the heart of Benedict's week-long visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, his first since becoming pope.
"Christians in the Middle East, together with other people of good will, are contributing as loyal and responsible citizens, in spite of difficulties and restrictions, to the promotion and consolidation of a climate of peace in diversity," he said.
"I express with affection my personal closeness in this situation of human insecurity, daily suffering, fear and hope (in) which you are living."
The Palestinian Christian population in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip has shrunk rapidly in recent decades as economic stagnation and political unrest have fuelled emigration.
The second Palestinian uprising in 2000 saw Israeli forces sweep through the West Bank in fierce battles with Palestinian militants who unleashed a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel.
And the construction of Israel's controversial separation barrier beginning in 2004 has cut off large parts of the West Bank from Israel and from neighbouring Palestinian areas, severely restricting commerce.
Church officials estimate that since 2000 some 4,000 Christians, most of them educated professionals, have left the occupied West Bank, where the Christian community is about 40,000-strong.
The Christian population in Gaza, with a mere 2,500 living among 1.5 million Muslims, is particularly vulnerable, as the territory has been shut off from all but vital aid since the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June 2007.