Cardinals from around the world are flocking to Rome for a daylong discussion of some of the most critical issues facing the Catholic church, including the sexual abuse of children by priests and persecution of Christians for their faith.

The meeting Friday comes on the eve of a ceremony, known as a consistory, to create 24 more cardinals, the third time Pope Benedict XVI has hand-picked the “princes of the church” who will eventually choose his successor.

Benedict’s agenda for Friday’s meeting – called to take advantage of the presence in Rome of the bulk of the world’s cardinals – reflects his concerns about the challenges facing the church today. The main topic is religious freedom, a timely issue given frequent reports of Christians being targeted for their faith in Iraq and a new flap with communist China.

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