Pope Benedict called on Islamic countries in the Middle East on Sunday to guarantee freedom of worship to non-Muslims and said peace in the region was the best remedy for a worrying exodus of Christians.

He made his appeal at a solemn mass in St Peter’s Basilica ending a two week Vatican summit of bishops from the Middle East, whose final document criticized Israel and urged the Jewish state to end its occupation of Palestinian territories.

In his sermon at the gathering’s ceremonial end, the pope said freedom of religion was “one of the fundamental human rights that each state should always respect.”

He said that while some states in the Middle East allowed freedom of belief, “the space given to the freedom to practice religion is often quite limited.”

At least 3.5 million Christians of all denominations live in the Gulf Arab region, the birthplace of Islam and home to some of the most conservative Arab Muslim societies in the world.

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