NICOSIA - Pope Benedict XVI wrapped up a visit to Cyprus on Sunday with his eyes on the troubled Middle East, calling for an end to bloodshed and highlighting the plight of the region's Christians.
At a mass in a sports arena near the Cypriot capital, he prayed for the success of a synod of Middle Eastern bishops in October which will grapple with the problems.
He expressed hope that the meeting "will help to focus the attention of the international community on the plight of Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs, so that just and lasting solutions may be found to the conflicts that cause so much hardship."
"On this grave matter, I reiterate my personal appeal for an urgent and concerted international effort to resolve the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, especially before such conflicts lead to greater bloodshed."
The mass was attended by around 10,000 people, including Cypriots and pilgrims from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, many waving their national flags and those of the Vatican.
Their numbers were swelled by migrant workers from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines who make up a large part of the Roman Catholic faithful in mainly Orthodox Cyprus.
The pontiff's remarks reflected the theme of the working paper for October's synod in Rome that he delivered to assembled bishops from the region after the service.
As he presented the document, the pope expressed hope that Christians in the region might live in "peace and harmony with your Jewish and Muslim neighbours."
Also, stressing the "great trials" endured by Christians and their "priceless role", he said he hoped their "rights would be more and more respected, including the right to freedom of worship and religion."
The same themes were reflected in the paper.
"In a region where the followers of the three monotheistic religions have lived together for centuries, Christians must get to know their Jewish and Muslim neighbours well if they are to collaborate with them in the fields of religion, social interaction and culture for the good of society as a whole," it said.
The paper also highlighted obstacles to this goal.
Referring to radical Islam, it said "these extremist currents, clearly a threat to everyone, Christians, Jews and Muslims, require joint action."
It also singled out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which flared again just days ago when Israeli commandos raided an aid flotilla trying to break the blockade on the Gaza Strip and killed nine Turkish activists.
"The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is creating difficulties in everyday life, inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy and religious life," with access to holy sites dependent on military permission.
Moreover, "certain Christian fundamentalist theologies used sacred scripture to justify Israel’s occupation of Palestine, making the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue."
And it expressed concern about the often difficult social and economic conditions in the region that force many Christians to emigrate.
"Their disappearance would impoverish the pluralism which has always characterised the the countries of the Middle East," which "would be at a disadvantage without the Christian voice."
Benedict's visit to Cyprus was the first ever by any pope and his first to an Orthodox country.
A small group of Orthodox faithful demonstrated outside the sport stadium where the pope celebrated mass on Sunday, but otherwise protests were low-key.
The pope ended his visit to Cyprus with a visit to Nicosia's Maronite cathedral but the leader of the Muslim community in northern Cyprus missed the pope because he arrived too late, the Vatican said.
In departing remarks to President Demetris Christofias at Larnaca airport, the pope expressed hope for a solution to the division of Cyprus.
The island was invaded by Turkey in 1974 following a Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the country with Greece, and the north is still occupied by Turkish troops.
Having stayed at the papal nunciature, located amid barbed wire and shell-pocked buildings in the UN buffer zone between the two sides, he said: "I have seen some of the sad division of the island."