Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful to deliver his "Urbi et Orbi" message, Latin for ”to the city and to the world," from the Vatican on Christmas Day.AP photo
ROME — As the faithful marked Christmas Day, political and religious leaders called for peace and reconciliation amid flickers of hope in places long plagued by conflict.
In Iraq, Christians made their way past checkpoints on Tuesday to fill Baghdad churches in numbers unthinkable a year ago. And in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where tradition says Jesus was born, Christians celebrated in an atmosphere of hope raised by the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
For them, and for all those in the “tortured regions” of the world, Pope Benedict XVI prayed that political leaders would find “the wisdom and courage to seek and find humane, just and lasting solutions.”
Benedict, delivering his Christmas Day address from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, urged the crowd to rejoice over the celebration of Christ’s birth, which he hoped would bring consolation to all people “who live in the darkness of poverty, injustice and war.”
In violence-ridden Baghdad, venturing out in large numbers late at night is still unthinkable, so the Iraqi capital’s Christians celebrated Midnight Mass in the middle of the afternoon on Christmas Eve.
On Tuesday some 2,000 went out to the Mar Eliya Church in the east of Baghdad where Iraq’s Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Catholic Church, celebrated Mass.
He told the congregation that Iraq is “a bouquet of flowers of different colors, each color represents a religion or ethnicity but all of them have the same scent.”
He congratulated Muslims for their Eid al-Adha holiday, falling near Christmas, and Muslim clerics — both Sunni and Shiite — attended the service in a sign of unity.
Christian pilgrims in Bethlehem filled the ancient Church of the Nativity, waiting in line to see the grotto that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
The large numbers and the cacophony of languages was evidence that more visitors were there this year than in the past several years.
The outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against Israel in late 2000 and the fighting that followed had clouded Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for years, battering the tourism industry that is the city’s lifeline.
In Afghanistan, British soldiers stationed in Helmand province found a little joy far from home at a meal where they wore red Santa hats and opened gift boxes. And U.S. service members went to early Christmas Mass at a base in Kabul.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II spoke to the nations of the Commonwealth in a televised Christmas message, urging people to think of the needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged living on the edge of society.
President Bush brought his extended family together for a Christmas celebration at the chief executive’s retreat at Camp David, Md., with gift exchanges and a traditional midday feast on the holiday agenda.