Pope sends Christmas message of peace, solidarity
Vatican City: Pope Benedict XVI, in his traditional Christmas Day message, Saturday expressed hope for global peace and solidarity and offered words of comfort to the faithful in China who live with "limitations imposed" on their freedom of religion.
During a noon ceremony, the 83-year-old pontiff also pronounced Christmas good wishes in 65 languages and delivered his Urbi et Orbi "to the city and to the world" blessing.
"May the birth of the Prince of Peace remind the world where its true happiness lies; and may your hearts be filled with hope and joy, for the Saviour has been born for us," Benedict said to the tens of thousands gathered in St Peter's Square, many of them holding umbrellas against winter drizzle.
The event was also being broadcast by dozens of television and radio stations around the world.
The spiritual leader of the world's more than one billion Catholics in his message implored that the "light of Christmas" may shine on the world's trouble spots, beginning with the "Land where Jesus was born".
May it inspire "Israelis and Palestinians to strive for a just and peaceful coexistence," Benedict said.
He also called on world leaders to show "effective solidarity" with the plight of Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. The Vatican has frequently denounced the targeting of those communities in terrorist attacks and through other forms of persecution.
Benedict also expressed hope that the Christmas spirit may bring peace to Somalia, Sudan's Darfur region and the Ivory Coast and political and social stability in Madagascar.
He mentioned the need for security and respect for human rights in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and also encouragement for dialogue between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and reconciliation between North and South Korean.
Benedict's reference to China, comes amid a spat in which the Vatican has repeatedly condemned the control exerted by Beijing's communist authorities over the Chinese Catholic church, including the ordination of bishops without the pontiff's consent.
"May the birth of the Saviour strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the Church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience," the pontiff said.
Benedict also prayed for hope and comfort to those suffering because of natural calamities including the people of Haiti stricken by a devastating earthquake and the recent cholera epidemic.
"May the same hold true not only for those in Colombia and Venezuela, but also in Guatemala and Costa Rica, who recently suffered natural disasters," he added.
Hours earlier, Benedict ushered the Vatican's Christmas celebrations by leading traditional midnight Christmas Mass in St Peter's Basilica.