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 on Saturday.
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 criticized China, where recently Catholics loyal to the pope were forced to attend a series of events by the state-backed Church which does not recognize 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 on Saturday, 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.
editing by Paul Taylor