A Vatican expression of concern over the violence in Syria this week was the latest sign of deep misgivings in Catholic circles about Arab uprisings seen as a threat for Christian minorities.
"The pope has been rather silent on the Arab revolutions," said Marco Politi, a Vatican specialist for Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.
"On the one hand the Holy See shares in the hope of a democratization of society. On the other, it is afraid of a strengthening of Islamism," he said.
He added that protecting Christian rights was "fundamental" for Pope Benedict XVI, who has made the issue one of the main features of his papacy.
Speaking on Thursday to Syria's new ambassador to the Holy See, Hussan Edin Aala, Benedict called on Damascus to "take into account the aspirations of civil society" and to recognize "the inalienable dignity of all people."
"Every nation's path to unity and stability lies in recognizing the inalienable dignity of all people. This recognition should be at the heart of institutions, laws and societies," the pope said at the audience.
The pontiff said the recent mass demonstrations against the government in Damascus "show the urgent need for real reforms" but called for "respect for truth and human rights" instead of "intolerance, discrimination or conflict".
Benedict said that Syria -- where there has been a Christian presence for 2,000 years -- had traditionally been "an example of tolerance, of conviviality and of harmonious relations between Christians and Muslims."
Some 7.5 percent of Syria's 20 million inhabitants are Christians and the community is well integrated. Many are afraid of a scenario similar to the one in Iraq that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.
The instability that exploded in Iraq following U.S.-led military action in 2003 favored the rise of Islamist currents and the Christian community quickly shrank from around 800,000 in 2003 to only some 450,000 now.
Al-Qaeda militants have branded Christians "crusaders" and pushed them out.
Syria and Iraq are not the only headaches for the Holy See, which is concerned more generally about the 50 million Christians including five million Catholics out of the Middle East's 356 million inhabitants.
The Vatican has repeatedly called for a negotiated solution to the conflict in Libya, afraid that NATO-led intervention could be seen as aggression by the Christian world against Muslims and could fuel Islamism.
The Vatican's envoy to Libya, Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, who has remained in Tripoli, has been a vehement critic of NATO and of the West's refusal to dialogue with Libyan leader Moammer Gadhafi.
There are also fears that a destabilization in Syria could affect Lebanon, where Christians represent around 40 percent of the population.
In a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas earlier this month, Benedict stressed the "irreplaceable contribution" of Christian minorities living in the Palestinian Territories and the Middle East as a whole.
Christians living in Israel and the Palestinian Territories represented around 25 of the population in the 19th century. Now they are just 1.5 percent, often fleeing due to insecurity, Israeli settlement and Islamist threats.
The Vatican is also worried about the rights of Christians in Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt -- where Christian Copts represent between six and 10 percent of the population and have been singled out in recent attacks.
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