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Pope calls for religious freedom in Arab countries

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict on Friday issued a strong call for religious freedom in Arab countries, saying everyone should have the right to practise their faith openly and to convert to other religions if they wanted.

The Pope, making his call in an address to Catholic bishops from Arab regions, also said he was concerned that parts of the Middle East risked becoming just "an archaeological site" if an exodus of Christians forced out by violence continued.

"I dearly hope that authentic religious freedom could become reality everywhere and that everyone's right to practise their religion freely, or to change it, should not be impeded," he told the bishops working in the Middle East and Africa.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses as he arrives to lead his weekly general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican January 16, 2008. (REUTERS/Dario Pignatelli)

"This is a primordial right for every human being," he added in his French-language speech.

The Vatican has long called for greater rights for Christians in Muslim countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where members of the tiny Christian minority are not allowed to practise their faith in public.

The Pope and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia discussed the situation of minority Christians when the king visited the Vatican last November.

The Pope did not name any countries in his reference to religious freedom.

He also repeated his concern about Christians leaving the Middle East because of wars, violence and insecurity.

"It is understandable that the circumstances sometimes push Christians to leave their country to find a more welcome land where they are allowed to live more freely," he said.

"But we must encourage and firmly support those who choose to remain faithful to their land, so that it does not become an archaeological site devoid of any church life," he said.

In the past, the Pope has specifically expressed his concern about the flight of Christians from Iraq, where a number of Christian clergy have been killed.

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