Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in his Christmas message Sunday, an appeal for peace that was challenged by deadly attacks on Nigerian churches.
Benedict delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” speech (Latin for “to the city and to the world”) from the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica overlooking a sun-drenched piazza below, before thousands of jubilant tourists and pilgrims, and hundreds of colorful Swiss Guards and Italian military bands.
The 84-year-old pope, fresh off a late-night Christmas Eve Mass, said he prayed that the birth of Jesus, which Christmas celebrates, would send a message to all who need to be saved from hardships. He cited refugees from the Horn of Africa and flood victims in Thailand, among others, and called for greater political dialogue in Myanmar, and stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa’s Great Lakes region.
He said he prayed that God would help the Israelis and the Palestinians resume talks. “May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed,” he said.
The pope didn’t mention the deadly blasts on churches in Nigeria, but the Vatican issued a statement denouncing the attacks as a sign of “cruelty and absurd, blind hatred” that shows no respect for human life.
Early Sunday, an explosion ripped through a Catholic church during Christmas Mass near Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, and an emergency worker reported that 25 people were killed. A second explosion struck near a church in Nigeria’s restive central city of Jos, while two other explosions hit the northeast state of Yobe.
There was no immediately claim of responsibility for either explosion, but Nigeria has suffered a wave of sectarian attacks blamed on the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the Catholic church was praying for all Nigerians confronting “this terrorist violence in these days that should be filled with peace and joy.”
The Vatican press office noted that Benedict’s speech was prepared well in advance of the attacks.
After his speech, Benedict delivered Christmas greetings in 65 different languages, from Mongolian to Maori, Aramaic to Albanian, Tamil to Thai. He finished the list with Guarani and Latin, as the bells tolled from St. Peter’s enormous bell towers.
In the West Bank, hundreds of Christian faithful, defying lashing rains and wind, celebrated Christmas Mass at Jesus’ traditional birthplace of Bethleham on Sunday, spirits high despite the gloomy weather.
Worshippers dressed in their holiday best rushed under cover of umbrellas into St. Catherine’s Church on Manger Square, leaving the plaza, with its 50-foot-tall (15-meter-tall) Christmas tree, deserted. The church was packed, and the overflow crowd waited eagerly in an arched corridor for a chance to enter.
Inside, supplicants, some dressed in the traditional attire of foreign lands, raised their voices in prayer, kissed a plaster statue of a baby Jesus and took communion. St. Catherine’s is attached to the smaller Church of the Nativity, which is built over a grotto where devout Christians believe Jesus was born. “Lots of pilgrims from around the world are coming to be here on Christmas,” said Don Moore, 41, a psychology professor from Berkeley, Calif., who came to Bethlehem with his family. “We wanted to be part of the action. This is the place, this is where it all started.”
With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.
In Britain, the leader of the world’s Anglicans, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said the summer riots in Britain and the financial crisis have broken bonds and abused trust in British society.
In his Christmas Day sermon, Rowan Williams appealed to those congregated at Canterbury Cathedral to learn lessons about “mutual obligation” from the events of the past year. He said Sunday “the most pressing question” now facing Britain is “who and where we are as a society.” “Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost,” he said.