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Pope Francis: "Truly there are so many tears this Christmas"

Pope Francis’s first Christmas message has been delivered.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

Updated 11.25am

POPE FRANCIS HAS condemned this year’s “brutal” religious persecution in the Middle East and has looked for peace in Nigeria, Ukraine and other world troublespots in his annual Christmas “urbi et orbi” message.

Calling also for an end to violence against “vast numbers of children”, and noting last week’s deadly attack in Pakistan, he said: “Truly there are so many tears this Christmas.”

Delivering his second Christmas blessing, the popular Argentine pontiff, visibly moved and departing from his text, said vast numbers of children “are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking”.

He asked Jesus to “give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan,” referring to the 149 people, including 133 schoool-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban.

Speaking to a large crowd massed outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the pope urged Ukrainians to “overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation”.

He turned too to the violence wrought by Islamic State fundamentalists this year in Syria and Iraq.

“I ask him, the Saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution.”

There were “too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly, from this region and the whole world,” he said.

He called for peace in “the whole Middle East” and continued efforts towards “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians.

The pope too urged peace in Nigeria “where more blood is being shed”, as well as in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Reublic of the Congo.

He noted the victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and in Guinea and thanked those were “courageously” assisting the sick

Tenderness and warmth

In a separate address last night, the pontiff urged for “tenderness” and “warmth” after a violence-plagued year as millions of Christians began marking Christmas.

The Argentine pontiff’s brief homily was replete with Gospel references in his Christmas Eve mass, broadcast live in 3D for the first time.

“Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us?” the pope asked in Saint Peter’s Basilica, filled with some 5,000 worshippers.

“Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!” he said.

The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics also called on “the arrogant, the proud… (and) those closed off to others” to meet life “with goodness, with meekness”.

On Thursday, in his second “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) message, the pope is expected to address the plight of Christians and other religious minorities suffering persecution in the Middle East, notably at the hands of the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group.

He is also due to touch on the war in Syria, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the Ebola epidemic, Islamic fundamentalist violence in northeastern Nigeria and the Ukraine conflict.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is expected to pay tribute to the “selflessness” of medical staff and aid workers fighting the Ebola epidemic in her annual Christmas Day broadcast.

In Bethlehem on Christmas Eve hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town’s biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

In his homily Twal called for “peace in Jerusalem”, where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and “equality and mutual respect” among all faiths.

He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in which more than 2,200 people died.

Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles — the colours of the Palestinian flag.

But for many faithful across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has drawn international condemnation.

“For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs,” Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.

Iraq’s ‘tragic situation’

Francis delivered a Christmas message via telephone to refugees displaced to Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.

“Dear brothers, I am close to you, very close to you in my heart,” the pope was quoted as telling the refugees by Italian press agency AGI.

“The children and the elderly are in my heart,” Francis also told the Iraqi refugees in the Ankawa camp.

In Baghdad, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said about 150,000 Christians had been displaced by an offensive spearheaded by the Islamic State group, which has targeted Christians and other minorities, with dozens leaving Iraq each day.

Iraq’s displaced Christians “still live in a tragic situation and there are no quick solutions for them,” Sako told AFP.

In Syria, Christians in the war-torn city of Homs were enjoying their first Christmas in three years in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood, with a brightly coloured tree and a manger made from rubble set up in the middle of the ruins.

“Our joy is indescribable,” said Taghrid Naanaa while picking out tree decorations at a shop in the district, which the Syrian army recaptured from rebel fighters this year.

‘Justice for Christmas’

In France, the busy Christmas period has been marred by a series of attacks, including one linked to Islamic extremism, which killed one person and left another 25 wounded.

In the United States, officials scrambled to contain renewed anger after an armed black teenager was shot dead by a white officer in a St Louis suburb late Tuesday.

On Christmas morning in Australia, church leaders reflected on several tragedies that hit the country this year, including the Sydney cafe siege, where two hostages and the gunman died, the killings of eight children in Cairns and the Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 flight disasters.

In Sierra Leone, all public Christmas festivities were cancelled as a result of the Ebola crisis, with soldiers deployed over the holiday season to prevent spontaneous street celebrations, officials said.

Ahead of the midnight mass in Bethlehem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas laid out his own Christmas wish list.

“This Christmas we deliver a very special message to the world: All I want for Christmas is justice,” he said as the Palestinians press a major diplomatic push at the United Nations to seek an end to Israel’s decades-long occupation.

© – AFP 2014

First published 7.21am

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