VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI urged Israel on Monday to help the dwindling Christian community in the Middle East by assuring them of a secure future in the region.

He has also asked that Israel resolve long-standing problems with the Holy See over church land and taxes and to ease visa restrictions for Catholic clergy.

Benedict raised the issues when he received Israel's new ambassador to the Holy See.

The problem of travel restrictions on Arab Christian clergy has been an irritant in relations. Israel has rescinded some travel privileges, citing security concerns.

Ambassador Mordechay Lewy told the pope that Israel is committed to strengthening the ancient Christian communities and wants to settle the outstanding issues with the Vatican.

Benedict has made concern over the future of Middle East Christians a priority. Economic problems as well as violence in the Holy Land and Iraq have led Christians to emigrate from the region.

"I pray that, in consequence of the growing friendship between Israel and the Holy See, ways will be found of reassuring the Christian community that they have a secure future in the region," Benedict said.

He said problems facing Christians are related to Israel-Palestinian tensions.

The Holy See recognizes Israel's legitimate need for security and self-defense and strongly condemns all forms of anti-Semitism, the pope said.

At the same time, he urged Israel to alleviate travel restrictions causing hardships for Palestinians.

The ambassador, in his remarks released by the Vatican, said Israel would do its utmost to help strengthen the Christian communities in Israel as their essential presence in the Holy Land is deeply rooted and historically self-understood.

He also said that Israel is committed to the peace process but warned of nightmarish perils if the process of proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region is not halted.