Pope Benedict adds Arabic to weekly Vatican address

Pope Benedict XVI Pope Benedict XVI addressed an audience of some 20,000 people in St Peter's Square

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, has for the first time spoken in Arabic during his weekly address to pilgrims to the Vatican.

"The Pope prays for all the Arabic-speaking people. May God bless you all," The Pope said.

The introduction of a sixth language is to express support for Christians in the Middle East, officials said.

The Vatican said Arabic was also introduced to remind all faiths to pray for peace in the region.

At the weekly papal audience which draws pilgrims from many countries, a priest read a summary of the Pope's address in Arabic for the first time, joining other briefs in French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Polish, Hungarian and Russian.

Vatican officials said that they hoped the use of Arabic during the event, broadcast live on television and radio throughout the world, would send a comforting word to Arab Christians in the Middle East, home to many Christian holy places.

A Pakistani-born UK tourist said he thought the move was a good idea.

"Everybody has a lot of respect for the Pope, irrespective of what religion you follow or what language you follow. But, still, I think it will be a very good idea," Khalid Hussain told the Associated Press news agency.

The BBC's Alan Johnston, in Rome, says that plight of Christians in places like Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories is a continual worry for the Vatican.

Members of these communities have been leaving to escape violence and oppression, or to go in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere.

And with this exodus, our correspondent adds, the ancient Christian presence in the Middle East is now very much in decline.

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