VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis offered Christmas wishes Wednesday for a better world, praying for protection for Christians under attack, battered women and trafficked children, peace in the Middle East and Africa, and dignity for refugees fleeing misery and conflict around the globe.
Francis delivered the traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (Latin for “to the city and to the world”) speech from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to more than 70,000 cheering tourists, pilgrims and Romans in the square below.
In his first Christmas message since being elected pontiff in March, he asked for all to share in the song of Christmas angels, “for every man or woman … who hopes for a better world, who cares for others,” humbly.
Among places ravaged by conflict, Francis singled out Syria, which saw its third Christmas during civil war; South Sudan; the Central African Republic; Nigeria; and Iraq.
In Iraq on Wednesday, militants targeted Christians in two attacks, including a bomb that exploded near a church during Christmas Mass in Baghdad. The separate bombings killed dozens of people.
The Vatican has been trying to raise concern in the world for persecution and attacks on Christians in parts of the Middle East and Africa.
“Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted in your name,” Francis said.
Adding an off-the-cuff remark, Francis said he was also inviting non-believers to join their desire for peace with everyone else.
The pope also prayed that God “bless the land where you chose to come into the world and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Francis then explained his concept of peace.
“True peace is not a balancing of opposing forces. It’s not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions,” the pope said. “Peace calls for daily commitment,” Francis said, reading the pages of his speech as they were ruffled by a chilly wind.
Francis also spoke of the lives of everyday people, especially those struggling for a better life.
Recalling the hundreds of migrants who have drowned this year while trying to reach European shores, including many close to the Italian island of Lampedusa, Francis prayed that refugees receive hope, consolation and assistance.
He added that “our thoughts turn to those children who are the most vulnerable victims of wars, but we think, too, of the elderly, of battered women” and others.
The 77-year-old pope kept to the simple style he has set for his papacy. Wearing a plain white cassock, Francis presented a sharp contrast in appearance to the pope who stood on the same balcony on Christmas exactly a year ago. Then Benedict XVI, who was soon to stun the world by retiring, read his Christmas speech while dressed in a crimson, ermine-trimmed cape. Benedict lives on the Vatican grounds, and Francis paid a holiday call on him earlier this week.
In another break with tradition, the Argentine-born Francis stuck to Italian for his Christmas greetings, forsaking a custom of wishing happy holidays in dozens of languages to the crowd below the balcony.
In the Mideast, pilgrims celebrated Christmas in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born, as candles illuminated the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.
This year’s turnout was the largest in years in Bethlehem, and the celebrations have been marked by careful optimism amid ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Leaders expressed hope the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.
The top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, led a prayer for some 1,000 worshippers. “The whole world now is looking at Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus,” Twal said in his annual address, adding that the message of Jesus was one of “love and reconciliation.”
Bethlehem lies 10 kilometers (six miles) south of Jerusalem. Entry to the city is controlled by Israel, which occupied the West Bank in 1967.
Following a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, the numbers of visitors to Bethlehem had plunged. But thanks to a period of relative calm, they have been steadily climbing in recent years.
Iskandar Salameh, an 18-year-old Palestinian, said the Christmas spirit was uniting those gathered Wednesday. “We all feel that Jesus is with us today,” he said.
In Britain, the royal family turned out in force for a Christmas church service, but the newest family member, Prince George, son of Prince William and Kate, was nowhere in sight.
Cicely Howard said she asked about the baby when she greeted Kate outside the church. Howard told the British news agency Press Association that Kate described George as being “more interested in the wrapping paper than the presents.” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in a pre-recorded Christmas message urged reflection among the distractions of the holiday period.
In his speech, Pope Francis also recalled the victims of natural disasters, especially Filipinos suffering from the recent typhoon in their homeland.
In North America, many spent a dark and cold holiday following an ice storm.
President Barack Obama encouraged fellow Americans to embrace the spirit of Christmas by volunteering at soup kitchens, buying presents for children in need or organizing food or clothing donation drives.