Vatican City - Pope Benedict on Sunday opened a crisis summit of Middle East bishops to discuss the future of Christians in the region and insisted they have a right to live in their homelands.
War and violence in Iraq and the Holy Land have provoked an exodus of thousands of Christians. Harsh economic conditions have also prompted many faithful to leave.
"Living with dignity in one's homeland is a fundamental human right," and "conditions of peace and justice are indispensable for a harmonious development of all the region's inhabitants," Benedict said, expressing hope that faithful can "can experience the joy of living in the Holy Land."
Later, addressing pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square, the pope lamented that the Middle East is "marked by deep divisions and torn by age-old conflicts."
Yet the Catholic church must be a "sign and instrument of unity and reconciliation," he said.
When he greeted the bishops, the pope stressed that the meeting's aim is mainly pastoral, even though it cannot ignore "the delicate, and, at times, dramatic social and political situation of several countries."
The gathering should also foster dialogue with Jews and Muslims, the pope said.
The pope said he witnessed the "joys and worries" of faithful in his pilgrimages to Turkey, the Holy Land and Cyprus, and expressed hope the summit would help revive the unity of Middle East Catholics.
Speaking about members of the Middle East's tiny Christian communities, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that situations of "war or permanent tension wears down hope for the future and pushes them to emigrate."
Lombardi told Vatican Radio the meeting "is a sign and seed of hope and peace."