VATICAN CITY –– Pope Benedict XVI prayed for a peaceful outcome of the political unrest in Egypt, and the Vatican spokesman said he hoped the changes in the region would lead to greater religious freedom.

“In these days I am following closely the delicate situation of the dear Egyptian nation,” the pope told pilgrims at his noon blessing at the Vatican Feb. 6.

“I ask God that this land, blessed by the presence of the Holy Family, may rediscover tranquility and peaceful coexistence, in a shared commitment to the common good,” the pope said.

It was Pope Benedict’s first comment on nearly two weeks of protest demonstrations that have shaken President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year hold on power.

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, reviewed the political turmoil in Egypt in a commentary Feb. 5 on Vatican Radio. He said it was not mistaken to speak of a “revolution” in countries of North Africa and the Middle East, where widespread political opposition has emerged for the first time.

Fr. Lombardi said that along with economic causes of the unrest, many people of the region – especially young people – want more freedom and a more responsive government. He noted that at the recent Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, leaders of Christian minorities there made similar calls for religious freedom.

“Now there are entire populations that, in order to more fully realize their dignity, are asking to exercise more responsibly the right of citizenship that belongs to every person of whatever religion,” the spokesman said.

“If these predominantly Muslim nations succeed in the crucial undertaking of growth in dialogue, in the respect of the rights of everyone, in participation and in freedom, then the world will be a safer place,” Fr. Lombardi said.

He expressed the Vatican’s hope that Egypt and other countries in the region will be spared any additional violence and bloodshed, and that political instability that increases the risk of violence will soon come to an end.

Coptic Catholic Bishop Youhannes Zakaria of Luxor said what was happening in Egypt could happen in any country where there were deep social and economic disparities.

“At the heart of the revolt is also the divide between the consumerism diffused by the media and the poverty of the people,” Bishop Zakaria told the Vatican missionary news agency Fides Feb. 5. “At the cinema and on television, movies and TV series filmed in luxurious palaces are shown continually while many Egyptians struggle to feed their families.”

“The world is experiencing difficult times, caused by the economic and global financial crisis, which takes a particularly heavy toll on developing countries. Underlying everything is a policy that is focused on selfishness and not on the promotion of human dignity,” he said.

The bishop said Egyptian Catholics were praying in their churches every evening for peace in the country.

In Luxor, in southern Egypt, the situation was calm, mainly because there was shared interest in protecting the area’s tourist industry. Unfortunately, he said, the tourist presence in recent weeks has been minimal.