Pope Christmas message urges peace, admonishes China

VATICAN CITY, (Reuters) – Pope Benedict prayed for a  rebirth of peace in the Middle East and encouraged Catholics in  Iraq and communist China to resist persecution in his Christmas  message read amid heightened security yesterday.
In the “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message,  he said the Christmas message of peace and hope was always new,  surprising and daring and should spur everyone in the peaceful  struggle for justice.
Speaking from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica to  thousands of people braving the chill and drizzle in the square  below, he delivered Christmas greetings in 65 languages,  including those spoken in the world’s trouble spots.
“May the light of Christmas shine forth anew in the Land  where Jesus was born, and inspire Israelis and Palestinians to  strive for a just and peaceful coexistence,” he said.
He hoped Christmas would bring consolation to Christians in  Iraq and all the Middle East, where the Vatican fears that  violence such as an October attack by militants on a Baghdad  church that killed 52 people is fuelling a Christian exodus from  the region.
Benedict also directly criticed China, where recently  Catholics loyal to the pope were forced to attend a series of  events by the state-backed Church which does not recognise his  authority, bringing relations with the Vatican to a low point.
He prayed that Christmas would “strengthen the spirit of  faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the Church in  mainland China” and decried “the limitations imposed on their  freedom of religion and conscience…”
Benedict asked God to “grant perseverance to all those  Christian communities enduring discrimination and persecution,  and inspire political and religious leaders to be committed to  full respect for the religious freedom of all”.
Police were on heightened security in the Vatican and in  Rome two days after parcel bombs exploded at the Swiss and  Chilean embassies in Rome. Anarchists claimed responsibility for  the attacks, which injured one person at each embassy.
More police than normal were seen along the main street  leading from the Tiber River to the Vatican but the atmosphere  in the square was festive despite the security and the rain.
In his sermon at Friday night’s Mass for some 10,000 people  inside the basilica, the pope, celebrating the sixth Christmas  since his election, prayed for oppressors to be punished.
Vatican guards were more vigilant on Friday night following  security breaches for two consecutive years at Christmas Eve  masses by the same woman, Susanna Maiolo.
Last year the woman, who has had a history of mental  problems, jumped over a barricade as the pope walked up the  basilica’s main aisle and managed to pull him to the floor. The  year before, she was stopped before she could reach him.
“His guardian angel will protect him and each one of us will  be protected,” said tourist Gayle Savino, from New York, as she  entered the basilica for the pope midnight mass on Friday night.
“It’s just a blessing to be here on such a wonderful night  on Christ’s birthday,” she said.
In his message yesterday, he also called for peace in  Somalia, Darfur and Ivory Coast, reconciliation between the two  Koreas and respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The group claiming responsibility for Thursday’s parcel bomb  attacks in Rome, the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), is  well known to Italian police and was described in an  intelligence report to parliament last year as “the main  national terrorist threat of an anarchist-insurrectionist type”.
It gained notoriety in 2003 with a so-called “Santa Claus  campaign” against EU institutions which included a parcel bomb  sent just before Christmas to Romano Prodi, a former prime  minister who at the time was head of the European Commission.

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