VATICAN CITY, (AFP) – Pope Benedict XVI urged an end Saturday to conflict in the Middle East and support for the region’s Christians, saying those living in Iraq needed comfort from their pain after deadly attacks.
In his traditional Christmas Day address delivered at the Vatican, the pope also called for human rights to be respected in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as for an end to the turmoil in African troublespots.
And there was a plea for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula along with a rebuke for the Communist rulers in Beijing over what he said were the limitations placed on Christians living on the Chinese mainland.
Fears for the safety of the Middle East’s dwindling numbers of Christians were heightened in late October when Islamist militants laid siege to a church in Baghdad, leaving 44 worshippers and two priests dead.
An Al-Qaeda affiliate group has also issued death threats to Iraqi Christians in recent days, warning them against celebrating Christmas.
In his address, Benedict appealed to the region’s leaders to show solidarity with all the local Christian communities, and singled out Iraq for special attention.
“May the comforting message of the coming of Emmanuel ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East,” he said in his Urbi et Orbi address.
“May it bring them comfort and hope for the future and bring the leaders of nations to show them effective solidarity,” he added.
Although a relative easing of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians enabled more people to attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank town of Bethlehem this year, Benedict said the festivities marking Christ’s birth should focus attention on the need for peace.
“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 told the crowds gathered in Saint Peter’s Square.
The pontiff said it was time for “lasting peace” not only in Ivory Coast but also other parts of Africa which have been rocked by conflict and unrest.
An outbreak of deadly violence in Ivory Coast in the aftermath of last month’s presidential election has cast a shadow over Christmas festivities in the West African nation.
“May the birth of the Saviour open horizons of lasting peace and authentic progress for the peoples of Somalia, Darfur and Cote d?Ivoire,” he said.
“May it promote political and social stability in Madagascar.”
He also rapped China for its curbs on religion, in a further illustration of the tensions between the Vatican and Beijing.
“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 but, persevering in fidelity to Christ and his Church, may keep alive the flame of hope,” he said.
Benedict’s comments followed an attack by China earlier this week, when it called the Vatican “imprudent” for criticising the state-sanctioned Chinese church, which is not recognised by the pope.