VATICAN CITY—Pope Benedict XVI urged loyal Catholics in China to have courage in the face of communist limits on religious freedom and conscience, a Christmas Day message highlighting the tensions between Beijing and the Vatican.
In Bethlehem, the largest number of pilgrims in a decade gathered to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity for prayers. Violence in Nigeria and the Philippines and fear in Iraq, however, marred Christmas Day festivities.
Benedict used his traditional holiday speech, delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to tourists and pilgrims in the rain-soaked square, to encourage people living in the world’s troublespots to take hope from the “comforting message” of Christmas. Those spots range from strife-torn Afghanistan to the volatile Korean peninsula to the Holy Land where Jesus was born—and even to China.
In recent weeks, tensions have flared anew between the Vatican and Beijing over the Chinese goverment’s defiance of the pope’s authority to name bishops and its insistence that prelates loyal to Rome attend a gathering to promote China’s state-backed church against their will.
“May the birth of the savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but, perserving in fidelity to Christ and his church, may keep alive the flame of hope,” Benedict prayed aloud.
The pope also expressed hope that Christmas might inspire respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan and “advance reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.”
Benedict has repeatedly spoken out about the plight of Christians in Iraq, many of whom have fled their country to escape persecution and violence, including an attack on a Baghad basilica during Mass. He prayed that Christmas would “ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and in the Middle East.”
“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,” Benedict said in his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” address (Latin for ‘to the city and to the world’).
In Bethlehem, it was the merriest Christmas in years.
Over 100,000 pilgrims poured into Bethlehem since Christmas Eve, compared to about 50,000 last year, Israeli military officials said, calling that the highest number of holiday visitors in a decade. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
In contrast, Christians were marking a somber Christmas in Baghdad in the face of repeated violence by militants intent on driving their beleaguered community from Iraq. Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka said he hoped Iraqi Christians would not flee the country.
Hundreds gathered at a Baghdad church where Muslim extremists in October took more than 120 people hostage in a standoff that ended with 68 dead. Church walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting hung instead of glass windows and flecks of dried flesh and blood still speckled the ceiling.
After the siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to U.N. estimates.
“No matter how hard the storms blows, love will save us,” Matouka told the gathered faithful.