NICOSIA, Cyprus - The Vatican said Sunday that the international community was ignoring the plight of Christians in the Middle East and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, and political instability in Lebanon had forced thousands to flee the region.
A working paper, released during Pope Benedict XVI's pilgrimage to Cyprus and ahead of a crisis summit of Middle East bishops to be held in Rome in October, also cites an "extremist current" unleashed by the rise of "political Islam" as a threat to the region's Christians.
The paper said that the line between religion and politics was blurred in Muslim countries, "relegating Christians to the precarious position of being considered noncitizens, despite the fact that they were citizens of their countries long before the rise of Islam."
The Vatican estimates that 17 million Christians live in countries from Iran to Egypt, and that while many have fled, new Catholic immigrants - mostly from the Philippines, India, and Pakistan - have arrived in recent years in some Arab countries to work as domestic or manual laborers.
The 46-page document said input from clerics in the region blamed the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories for inhibiting freedom of movement, the economy, and religious life. It alleged that access to holy places is dependent on military permission that is sometimes denied on security grounds.
It also said that the use of biblical texts by some Christian fundamentalists to justify Israel's occupation, makes "the position of Christian Arabs an even more sensitive issue."
The document said the rise of "political Islam" in Arab, Turkish, and Iranian societies and its extremist currents are "clearly a threat to everyone, Christians and Muslims alike."
The Vatican expects about 150 bishops to attend the Oct. 10 to 24 meeting in Rome.
In his final Mass in Cyprus on Sunday, Benedict said he was praying that the October meeting will focus the attention of the international community "on the plight of those Christians in the Middle East who suffer for their beliefs."
He appealed 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."
The Vatican considers mostly Greek Orthodox Cyprus as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and invited bishops to come to the Mediterranean island to receive the working paper.
The pope said Cyprus could "play a particular role in promoting dialogue and cooperation" in the region.
A meeting between the pope and a Muslim leader was scrapped after the Turkish Cypriot official was delayed at the U.N.-controlled buffer zone that divides the island between ethnic Turks and Greeks, the Vatican said.
Yusuf Suicmez, the head of Turkish Cypriots' religious-affairs department, said he had hoped to pray with the pope for peace and brotherhood.
Benedict briefly met with another Turkish Cypriot Muslim leader Saturday as part of efforts to talk to both sides of the island's decades-old conflict and help foster reconciliation.
Cyprus was ethnically split in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a coup by supporters of union with Greece.
Turkish Cypriots declared an independent republic in the island's north in 1983. Only Turkey recognizes it.
Benedict has walked a careful diplomatic path since arriving Friday on the island, but he made a poignant appeal for peace before leaving.
A group of 100 Orthodox Christian demonstrators earlier staged a peaceful protest against Benedict's visit outside the Nicosia sports stadium where he presided over Mass, holding aloft banners calling the pope "a heretic."