Christmas celebrations reflect on war, hardship

1212.jpgVATICAN CITY (AFP) — War and economic hardship loomed over Christmas celebrations across the world on Thursday, with Pope Benedict XVI pleading for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

“May the divine light of Bethlehem radiate throughout the Holy Land, (bringing) forth rich fruit from the efforts of all those who (shun) the twisted logic of conflict and violence,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his traditional address in St Peter’s Square.


“This light … is besought by the people of Zimbabwe, in Africa, trapped for all too long in a political and social crisis which, sadly, keeps worsening,” the pope said, watched by thousands in the huge square.

Benedict, whose message was also broadcast to millions worldwide, added that “interminable sufferings are the tragic consequence of the lack of stability and peace” in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Somalia.

“Let us pray that peace will be established (in the Middle East), that hatred and violence will cease,” the pope said earlier during his midnight mass Christmas homily.

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ’s traditional birthplace, thousands of Christians turned out in the largest numbers since the 2000 start of the Palestinian uprising, braving the cold to bring festive cheer to the troubled region.


Many prayed in the Church of the Nativity, where a grotto marks the spot where Christ is believed to have been born, while others gathered outside in Manger Square, where boy scout marching bands played hymns on bagpipes and drums.

“On this night, the silence of the grotto will be even louder than the voice of the cannons and submachine guns,” Catholic Patriarch Fuad Twal told pilgrims at a midnight mass in the church.

Despite the messages of peace there were constant reminders of war and conflict in many parts of the world.

Some 150 Palestinian pilgrims waiting to leave Gaza to cross Israel to celebrate Christmas in the West Bank had a close call when a mortar bomb fell on the border terminal, the Israeli army said.

The missile fired by Palestinian militants inside Gaza fell on the Erez border but failed to explode, it said.

In Afghanistan a British marine was shot dead in the southern province of Helmand on Christmas Eve, and a US trooper was killed in an attack in the east of the country on the same day, military authorities said.


In Baghdad, nervous Iraqi Christians packed the little Church of the Virgin Mary of the Holy Heart in the heart of the capital to celebrate Christmas mass amid ongoing security concerns for the embattled minority community.

But in the Philippines military and 5,000 communist insurgents declared ceasefires on Wednesday and Thursday in the country, where more than 80 percent of people are Christian.

Other world leaders reflected on the economic hardship brought on by the worldwide credit crunch which has sparked recession and job losses.

“Christmas is a time for celebration, but this year it is a more sombre occasion for many,” according to advance extracts of Queen Elizabeth II’s broadcast from Buckingham Palace in London.

“Some of those things which could once have been taken for granted suddenly seem less certain and naturally give rise to feelings of insecurity,” it said

US President-elect Barack Obama urged the American people to put their shoulder to the “wheel of history” to forge brighter days from the misery of economic crisis, and paid tribute to the thousands of US service personnel stationed overseas.

In Germany Catholic and Protestant religious leaders called for solidarity with those affected by the economic crisis.

“In the midst of our Christmas celebrations, it’s important we reflect on those in our community who are doing it tough,” Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a national address.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a controversial figure for his anti-Israel stance — was to deliver an alternative Christmas message on British television to rival the queen’s address, broadcaster Channel Four said.

Ahmadinejad said that if Christ were alive today, he would oppose “bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers,” according to a pre-released transcript