VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Thursday roundly condemned jihadist violence and the “brutal persecution” of religious minorities in a Christmas message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of others.
Speaking to a packed crowd outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the popular Argentine pontiff also made a strong call to end violence wrought against children amid “indifference and tears.”
His second traditional “urbi et orbi” message (to the city and to the world) comes at the close of a year plagued by war and violent religious fundamentalism, notably in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and most recently against schoolchildren in Pakistan.
“Truly there are so many tears this Christmas,” he said in the message broadcast across the world.
Without naming the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, he said Christians in Iraq and Syria “for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict” and “together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution.”
Killings and hostage-takings from the Middle East to Nigeria and elsewhere must stop, he said.
Visibly moved and departing from his text, the 78-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church noted “the children massacred by bombardments, including where the son of God was born” — in the Holy Land — and their “powerless silence that cries under the sword.”
Denouncing “indifference”, he explicitly condemned abortion, deploring the children “killed before seeing the light”.
“May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers.”
“May he give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan last week”, he added, referring to the 149 people, including 133 school-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban.
In Baghdad, where an estimated 150,000 Iraqi Christians have fled jihadist violence since June, Christmas celebrations were dampened by events.
“We do not have any feelings of joy,” said Rayan Dania Sabri at Baghdad’s Church of the Ascension. “How can we be joyful when there are thousands still living in camps and schools in poor conditions?”
Turning to troublespots elsewhere across the globe, the softly-spoken Francis urged Ukrainians also to “overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation”.
He called for peace in “the whole Middle East” and continued efforts towards “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians.
Peace too was essential in Africa, particularly in Nigeria “where more blood is being shed”, as well as in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
He noted the victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and thanked those who were “courageously” assisting the sick.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II also paid tribute to the “selflessness” of medical staff and aid workers fighting the Ebola epidemic in her own annual Christmas Day broadcast.
In a speech dedicated to the theme of reconciliation, the queen also said it would “take time” to bridge the differences in Scotland following the defeat of a referendum on independence there.
In Sierra Leone, all public Christmas festivities were cancelled as a result of the Ebola crisis, with soldiers deployed over the holiday season to prevent spontaneous street celebrations, officials said.
US President Barack Obama and his family, on holiday in Hawaii, began Christmas Day by singing carols and exchanging gifts.
On Christmas Eve the president spoke by telephone to troops stationed abroad, thanking them for their service, the White House said.
Cubans meanwhile prepared to celebrate Christmas, a resurgent holiday banned for 38 years by the communist government, with an early gift from Obama: a historic rapprochement that has raised hopes for an economic revival on the island.
In Bethlehem on Christmas Eve hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town’s biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.
In his homily, Twal called for “peace in Jerusalem”, where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and “equality and mutual respect” among all faiths.
He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in which more than 2,200 people died.