Pope Benedict XVI has denounced violence committed in God’s name, when he addressed around 250 people attending a special meeting of bishops from the Muslim-majority Middle East.

In off-the-cuff remarks, the Pope referred to “the power of the terrorist ideology that carries out violence in the name of God, but this is not God. These are false divinities that must be unmasked, because they are not God.”

At the Oct. 10 Sunday service Benedict spoke about the future of Christians in the Middle East who made up 20 percent of the population a century ago, but today account for less than 6 percent, as war and poor economic conditions have triggered their departure.

Jewish and Muslim representatives are also attending the Oct. 10-24 gathering, called a synod.

Biblical readings and prayers were conducted in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Turkish.

The 185 official synod participants come from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, the  Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.

Monsignor Nikola Eterovic, the general secretary of the synod, had noted on Oct. 8 that about 356 million people live in the region of whom only 5.7 million are Catholics, or 1.6 percent of the population. The total number of all Christians of different churches is about 20 million people, approximately 5.6 percent the population.

While describing the purpose of the synod as being “primarily pastoral,” Benedict noted, “the bishops cannot ignore the delicate and sometimes dramatic, social and political situation of some of the countries in the Middle East.”

The Pope said he hoped the synod’s work will strengthen the communion of Catholic churches along with those belonging to the Oriental rite (such as Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic and Chaldeans) that belong to the church of Rome and other Christian churches, as well as relations with Muslims and Jews.

A meeting working paper presented by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, Antonios Naguib, a key figure at the synod, underlines the main issues facing Christians in the Middle East.

The document notes that in the Middle East, “Freedom of religion customarily means freedom of worship and not freedom of conscience, that is, the freedom to believe or not believe, to practice openly one’s religion, privately or publicly, or to change one’s religion for another.”

Generally speaking, the text says, “In the Middle East to change one’s religion is perceived as a betrayal of the society, culture and nation, which are founded, for the most part, on a religious tradition.”

One of those attending the synod, requesting anonymity, told ENInews that this means, “In the Middle East, society blesses a Christian who becomes Muslim, but absolutely does not tolerate a Muslim becoming a Christian.”

Another issue discussed in the paper is the emigration “of Christians and non-Christians from the Middle East, a phenomenon which began at the end of the 19th century and chiefly arose for political and economic reasons … Today, emigration is particularly prevalent because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the resulting instability throughout the region.”