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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Arabic made its debut as one of the official languages at Pope Benedict's weekly general audiences on Wednesday as part of a Vatican attempt to reach out more to Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
The Vatican is concerned about the exodus from the Middle East of Christians, many of whom leave because they fear for their safety. Christians now comprise five percent of the population of the region, down from 20 percent a century ago.
According to some estimates, the current population of 12 million Christians in the Middle East could halve by 2020 if security and birth rates continue to decline.
Vatican officials said that speaking Arabic during the audiences, which are broadcast live on television and radio across the world, would send a comforting word to Christians in a region which is home to many Christian holy places.
They also hope the pope addressing Muslims directly could improve sometimes strained relations with Islam.
A priest read a summary of the pope's Italian language weekly address in Arabic for the first time, joining other briefs in French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Polish, Hungarian and Russian during the audience in front of thousands of people in St Peter's Square.
After the address, which dealt with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the pope said in Arabic: "The pope prays for all people who speak Arabic. May God bless you all."
The Vatican said the addition was made to show the pontiff's concern for Christians in the Middle East and to remind both Muslims and Christians to work for peace in the region.
A Vatican statement said the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics wanted to continue the spirit of his trip to Lebanon last month.
During the trip, the pope made many appeals to both Christians and Muslims to work for an end to the conflict in neighboring Syria and for peace in the entire region.
In 2006 the pope gave a speech in Regensburg which was perceived by some Muslims as an attack on Islam. The pope said he was misunderstood and later visited a mosque in Turkey and prayed with an imam.
Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Diana Abdallah