VATICAN CITY, DEC 13, 2001 (VIS) - This morning in the Vatican, the Holy Father presided over a meeting on "The Future of Christians in the Holy Land," which seeks, the Pope said, "to reaffirm, once more, the interest and concern with which the Holy See follows the situation in the Holy Land, sharing, through a particular spiritual closeness, the drama of those peoples, for so long tried by acts of violence and discrimination."

"Unfortunately, we find ourselves meeting in a moment which I do not hesitate to call 'dramatic', both for the peoples who live in those dear regions, and for our brethren in the Faith, who seem crushed by the weight of two diverse extremisms which, independently from the reasons that fuel them, are disfiguring the face of the Holy Land."

The Pope recalled that at the beginning of the Jubilee of 2000, the patriarchs and those responsible for the Christian communities of the Holy Land launched a "message of faith, of hope, and of charity," inviting "all of those living in the Holy Land and in the entire world to live in justice and peace. How we would have wished that this message had been promptly heard and carried out!"

"To you, dear brothers in the episcopate in the Holy Land, belongs the important task of continuing to be witnesses of the presence of the love of God in that land and the bearers of His message in milieux of Islamic or Hebrew majority."

John Paul II concluded his discourse affirming that the presence of a representation of various world bishops is "a testimony that, in this your difficult task, you are not alone: the entire Church is with you. The whole Church shares your concerns, supports your daily efforts, is close to the suffering of your faithful, and, through prayer, keeps hope alive."

After the Pope's discourse, Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano affirmed that "our first duty is to cooperate in restoring a climate of peace, between Israelis and Palestinians." The work of peace, he said, "has always been supported, in these sad years, by the entire Church and in particular by the Apostolic See."

The Cardinal recalled that the wounds of the Holy Land are "the fruit of more than 50 years of a painful tension, which dates back to the famous plan initiated by the U.N. in 1947 for the partitioning of Palestine. It is a story of tears and blood, which has always urged the supreme pontiffs ... to an intense activity to help those peoples to find a peaceful solution to their grave problems." Under the direction of this pontifical teaching, he said, "diplomatic action has been thus strengthened ... to propose concrete solutions to the present conflict insisting above all on the necessity of a truce and a resuming of negotiations between the parties, unfortunately brusquely interrupted a year ago."

Following this, the Secretary of State focused upon the theme of the meeting: the future of Christians in the Holy Land. "Statistics tell us," he said, "that (the number of Christians) is not many, due to the continual emigrations to which they are compelled by the difficult conditions of life: ... 117,000 Catholics, in Israel and the Palestinian territories, out of a population of 6,100,000 inhabitants. Beyond this we know that there is a considerable presence of other Christians, especially of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate. It is true," he continued, that "altogether Christians make up less than 3 percent of the population. ... The majority of Christians are of Palestinian origin and a small number are also of Hebrew origin. ... They live in a characteristic religious context and we must examine how to help them in their dialogue with the Hebrew and Islamic worlds. Many suffer, and therefore we must consider how to concretely assist them."

"The Holy See," he concluded, "has kept their situation well in mind in the two noted agreements which were signed, respectively, with the State of Israel in 1993, and with the Palestinian Authority in 2000. ... Together we will seek to bring our contribution of solidarity to our brethren in the Holy Land, and in particular to those so tried in Jerusalem. May they know that they are not alone!"

Various discourses are scheduled throughout the day-long meeting. His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, patriarch of Jerusalem of the Latins, will speak on "The situation of Christians in the Holy Land since September 28, 2000" (the start of the second Intifada). Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, will address "Dialogue between Islam and Christianity since September 11, 2001." Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, secretary for Relations with States, will discuss "The peace process and the status of the City of Jerusalem."

Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace will then focus upon "The question of refugees," while, in conclusion, His Beatitude Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, will speak on "The specific contribution of the Catholic Church."