In Christmas message, Pope speaks out on conflicts, migrants

Vatican City :Pope Francis offered a Christmas message today of mitigated hope for an end to the world’s conflicts, backing recent accords on Syria and Libya and praising those who shelter migrants.

“We pray… that the agreement reached in the United Nations may succeed in halting as quickly as possible the clash of arms in Syria,” he said, while urging that “the agreement on Libya be supported by all.”

Delivering his Christmas message from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, the 79-year-old pontiff touched on several other conflict zones, including Iraq, Yemen, the DR Congo, Burundi and South Sudan following a year of violence and suffering that forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

The pope, addressing tens of thousands of pilgrims in the sunny square, also decried “brutal acts of terrorism, particularly the recent massacres which took place in Egyptian airspace, in Beirut, Paris, Bamako and Tunis.”

After a year that saw more than one million migrants reach Europe, Francis praised those who shelter them, asking God to “repay all those, both individuals and states, who generously work to provide assistance and welcome” to them.

The leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also used the traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) address to denounce the destruction of cultural heritage.

In a clear reference to the Islamic State group (IS), he said their “atrocities… do not even spare the historical and cultural patrimony of entire peoples.”

IS has launched a campaign of destruction against buildings and monuments that fall outside its harsh interpretation of Islam, ranging from Christian churches to Muslim graves, as well as ancient treasures like the temples of Palmyra.

The plight of embattled Christians in the Middle East, especially where they have been threatened by the advance of IS, has been thrown into the spotlight this year, and in Iraq, the mood was sombre.

“We are praying for the restoration of peace and security and the return of the displaced to their land,” said a worshipper at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, one member of a dwindling Christian community trickling in to churches.

She said 12 of her relatives lost their homes when IS took over Iraq’s second city Mosul in 2014 and ordered Christians to convert to Islam, to pay a heavy tax as second-class citizens or face death.

In Bethlehem last night, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land arrived for the traditional midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity—built over the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.