A special meeting of Roman Catholic bishops will be held at the Vatican beginning Oct. 10 to discuss the declining number of Christians in the Middle East.

Monsignor Nikola Eterovic, general secretary of the bishops’ synod, told journalists on Oct. 8 that the meeting will take place from Oct. 10-24 on the theme “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness.”

A total of 185 Roman Catholic clerics will participate, most of them coming from the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories and Yemen.

While 356 million people live in the region, Eterovic said only 5.7 million, or 1.6 percent,   are Catholic, and 20 million, or 5.6 percent, are Christian.

The plight of Christians in the region varies from country to country. In some places the situation is “dramatic,” in others the churches are respected, said Eterovic.

Pope Benedict XVI will open the synod, to which he has also invited 12 “fraternal delegates” from the Oriental and Eastern Churches of the Middle East, known as Orthodox churches.

The pontiff has also invited a representative of Sunni Islam, Muhammad Al-Sammak, a political advisor to Lebanon; and a Shiite Muslim, Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi of Shahid Beheshti University of Tehran.

In addition, he has asked Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Department of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, to attend.

The aim of the synod is “pastoral,” but, Eterovic stressed, “We know the complex political situation of the region.”