• Pope Francis calls for ‘tenderness’

    CHRISTMAS MASS  The Pope kisses the unveiled baby Jesus during a Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on December 24 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO

    The Pope kisses the unveiled baby Jesus during a Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on December 24 at the Vatican. AFP PHOTO

    VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis called for “tenderness” and “warmth” after a violence-plagued year as millions of Christians began marking Christmas.

    The Argentine pontiff’s brief homily was replete with Gospel references in his Christmas Eve mass, broadcast live in 3D for the first time.

    “Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us?” the pope asked in Saint Peter’s Basilica, filled with some 5,000 worshippers.

    “Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!” he said.

    The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics also called on “the arrogant, the proud . . . (and) those closed off to others” to meet life “with goodness, with meekness.”

    Pope Francis celebrated Christmas by sending the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of others his traditional “urbi et orbi” message at the close of a year plagued by war and religious fundamentalism.

    He called for an end to “brutal” religious persecution, killings and hostage-taking in the Middle East and Nigeria as well as violence against children in his annual Christmas “urbi et orbi” message.

    Denouncing conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere, and noting last week’s deadly attack against school-children in Pakistan, the pontiff also lamented the thousands of victims of the Ebola apidemic in West Africa.

    “Truly there are so many tears this Christmas,” he said.

    Delivering his second Christmas blessing, the popular Argentine pontiff, visibly moved and departing from his text, said vast numbers of children “are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking.”

    He asked Jesus to “give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan,” referring to the 149 people, including 133 school-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban.

    Speaking to a large crowd massed outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the pope urged Ukrainians to “overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation.”

    He turned too to the violence wrought by Islamic State fundamentalists this year in Syria and Iraq.

    “I ask him, the Savior of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution.”

    There were “too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly, from this region and the whole world,” he said.

    He called for peace in “the whole Middle East” and continued efforts towards “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians.

    The pope too urged peace 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 in Guinea and thanked those were “courageously” assisting the sick.

    In Baghdad, where an estimated 150,000 Iraqi Christians have fled jihadist violence since June, Christmas celebrations took place under a pall.

    “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?”

    Francis delivered a Christmas message via telephone to refugees displaced to Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.

    Also expected to rank high among the pope’s concerns are the war in Syria and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

    The 78-year-old pontiff may also appeal to the warring sides in the Ukraine conflict to turn away from violence.

    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.

    Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles—the colors of the Palestinian flag.

    But for many faithful across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has drawn international condemnation.

    “For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs,” Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.

    Iraq’s ‘tragic situation’
    Francis delivered a Christmas message via telephone to refugees displaced to Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region.

    “Dear brothers, I am close to you, very close to you in my heart,” the pope was quoted as telling the refugees by Italian press agency AGI.

    “The children and the elderly are in my heart,” Francis also told the Iraqi refugees in the Ankawa camp.



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