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A senior Vatican official on Saturday lamented the plight of Christians in the Middle East who are suffering because of wars, other violence and uncertainty over the future.
Archbishop Leonardo Sandri singled out Christians in the Holy Land, Lebanon and Iraq in a statement he issued upon his appointment as head of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, many of whose members live in the Middle East.
The Vatican has expressed alarm in recent years over the flight of ancient Christian communities from the Middle East and violence directed against Catholics in Iraq, both subjects expected to have been on the agenda of Pope Benedict XVI's talks Saturday with US President George W. Bush.
The Christian community in Iraq is about three percent of the country's 26 million people. Many churches are now nearly empty, with many of their faithful either gone or too scared to attend.
Sandri said his thoughts went out to "those suffering in the Holy Land, in Iraq, in Lebanon and wherever because of war, violence and uncertainty over the future. I am (also) thinking of those forced to leave their homelands."
The Argentine-born Sandri, the Vatican's undersecretary of state, had become known as the "voice of the pope" for reading many of the late Pope John Paul II's speeches during his long illness.
Pope Benedict named Archbishop Fernando Filoni, an Italian prelate who served as Vatican envoy in Iraq from 2001-2006, as undersecretary of state.
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