Pope’s Christmas message focuses on Mideast, China

Big crowd flocks to Bethlehem

VATICAN CITY (AP) — In his Christmas message to the world Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to the slaughter in Syria and for more meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while encouraging more religious freedom under China’s new leaders.

Delivering the traditional speech from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just and respectful societies.

The pope prayed that China’s new leadership may “esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other” to help build a “fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people.”

It was a clear reference to the Chinese government’s often harsh treatment of Catholics loyal to the pontiff instead of to the state-sanctioned church. Earlier this month, the Vatican refused to accept the decision by Chinese authorities to revoke the title of a Shanghai bishop, who had been appointed in a rare show of consensus between the Holy See and China.

As the 85-year-old pontiff, bundled up in an ermine-trimmed red cape, gingerly stepped foot on the balcony, the pilgrims, tourists and Romans below backing St. Peter’s Square erupted in cheers.

Less than 12 hours earlier, Benedict had led a two-hour long Christmas Eve ceremony in the basilica. He sounded hoarse and looked weary as he read his Christmas message and then holiday greetings in 65 languages.

In his “Urbi et Orbi” speech, which traditionally reviews world events and global challenges, Benedict prayed that “peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims.”

He called for easier access to help refugees and for “dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”

Benedict prayed that God “grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation.”

Hours earlier, in the ancient Bethlehem church built over the site where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminated the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.

Overcast skies and a cold wind in the Holy Land didn’t dampen the spirits of worshippers in the biblical West Bank town. Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited to see the grotto that is Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

Bethlehem lies 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.

For those who couldn’t fit into the cavernous Bethlehem church, a loudspeaker outside broadcast the Christmas day service to hundreds of faithful in the square.

Their Palestinian hosts, who welcome this holiday as the high point of their city’s year, were especially joyous this season, proud of the United Nations’ recognition of an independent state of Palestine just last month.

“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East,” said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address.

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