VATICAN CITY – Israel said Sunday that a meeting of Middle East bishops was hijacked by enemies of the Jewish state, after the gathering at the Vatican largely blamed Israel for conflict in the region.
In a communique at the end of their two-week meeting, the bishops demanded that Israel accept U.N. resolutions calling for an end to its occupation of Arab lands, and told Israel it shouldn't use the Bible to justify "injustices" against the Palestinians.
"We express our disappointment that this important synod has become a forum for political attacks on Israel in the best history of Arab propaganda," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon of Israel said in a statement Sunday.
"The synod was hijacked by an anti-Israel majority," he said.
The meeting was convened by Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the future of embattled Christians in the largely Muslim region. It formally ended with a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday during which the pontiff called for greater religious freedom and peace in the Middle East.
But the bishops attending the gathering issued their conclusions on Saturday.
They said they had "reflected" on the suffering and insecurity in which Israelis live and on the status of Jerusalem, a city holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims. While the bishops condemned terrorism and anti-Semitism, they laid much of the blame for the conflict squarely on Israel.
They listed the occupation of Palestinian lands, Israel's separation barrier with the West Bank, its military checkpoints, political prisoners, demolition of homes and disturbance of Palestinians' socio-economic lives as factors that have made life increasingly difficult for Palestinians.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said it was absurd that the Jewish state had been condemned since Israel is the only country in the region where Christians are actually thriving.
According to statistics he provided, there were some 151,700 Christians in Israel last year, compared with 132,000 in 1999 and 107,000 two decades ago.
Palmor also criticized the bishops' statement that Israel shouldn't use the Bible to justify "injustices" against the Palestinians.
"This has never been a policy of any government in Israel, so this position sounds particularly hollow," he said. "Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone."
In recent years, relations between Jews and the pope have sometimes been tense.
Many Jews criticized Benedict's decision to move his predecessor Pius XII toward sainthood, saying the wartime pontiff didn't do enough to protect Jews from the Holocaust. The Vatican has maintained that Pius used behind-the-scenes diplomacy in a bid to save Jewish lives.
Another sore point recently was Benedict's decision to revoke the excommunication of a renegade bishop who had denied that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust. The Vatican said it wasn't aware of the bishop's views when the excommunication was lifted.
Some Jews also have been angered by Benedict's reaching out to Catholic traditionalists, including his revival of a prayer for the conversion of Jews.
Benedict visited the Holy Land last year in a pilgrimage meant largely to boost interfaith relations. In January, he visited a Rome synagogue.
The Mideast meeting at the Vatican involved about 185 participants, including nine patriarchs of the Mideast's ancient Christian churches and representatives from 13 other Christian communities. A rabbi and two Muslim clerics were invited to the meeting as well.
The exodus of the faithful from the birthplace of Christianity was a major theme of the gathering. The Catholic church has long been a minority in the Middle East, but its presence is shrinking further as a result of conflict, discrimination and economic problems.
"Peace is possible. Peace is urgent," Benedict said in his homily. "Peace is also the best remedy to avoid the emigration from the Middle East."
The pope also called freedom of religion "one of the fundamental human rights, which each state should always respect" and said the issue should be the subject of dialogue with Muslims.
The pontiff said that while freedom of worship exists in many Mideast countries, the space given to the actual freedom to practice "is many times very limited." Expanding this space, he said, is necessary to guarantee "true freedom to live and profess one's faith."
According to Vatican statistics, Catholics represent just 1.6 percent of the region's population. Christians as a whole represent 5.62 percent.
Palmor, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, urged Christians not to flee the region. "Israel views their presence in the Middle East as a blessing and regrets their decline in Arab countries," he said.
The Palestinians welcomed the synod's conclusions in a statement released by Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to the Palestinian leadership. "The international community must uphold its moral and legal responsibility to put a speedy end to the illegal Israel occupation," Erekat said.
Also Sunday, Benedict announced that the 2012 synod would be dedicated to the theme of evangelization. The pontiff has recently created a new Vatican office — the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization — to revive Christianity in Europe, part of his efforts to counter secular trends in traditionally Christian countries.