The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

December 25, 2012

Pope's Christmas message focuses on Mideast, China

— 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."

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