'So many tears' this Christmas, says Pope Francis

'So many tears' this Christmas, says Pope Francis
5 min read
25 December, 2014
Pontiff addressed plight of region's Christians in Christmas mass as Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians celebrate in shadow of occupation and conflict. Popular pope also prays for relatives of Pakistan school attack.
Christians in the region celebrate Christmas under the shadow of occupation, displacement and conflict (Anadolu)
Pope Francis called for an end to "brutal" religious persecution, killings and hostage-taking in the Middle East and Nigeria as well as violence against children in his annual Christmas "urbi et orbi" message.

Denouncing conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere, and noting last week's deadly attack against schoolchildren in Pakistan, the pontiff also lamented the thousands of victims of the Ebola apidemic in West Africa.

"Truly there are so many tears this Christmas," he said.

     All I want for Christmas is justice.

– Mahmoud Abbas
Delivering his second Christmas blessing, the popular pontiff, visibly moved and departing from his text, said vast numbers of children "are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking".

He asked Jesus to "give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan," referring to the 149 people, including 133 schoool-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban.

Speaking to a large crowd massed outside Saint Peter's Basilica, the pope turned to the violence wrought by the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) this year in Syria and Iraq.

"I ask him, the Saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution."

There were "too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly, from this region and the whole world," he said.

He called for peace in "the whole Middle East" and continued efforts towards "dialogue" between Israelis and Palestinians.

The pope too urged peace in Nigeria "where more blood is being shed", as well as in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Reublic of the Congo.

He noted the victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and in Guinea and thanked those were "courageously" assisting the sick.

Iraq’s tragedy

The Argentine pontiff yesterday spoke by phone to Iraqis displaced by violence in their country. Addressing refugees displaced to Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region, the leader of the world’s 1.2billion Roman Catholics told them they were “in my heart”, according to Italian news agency AGI

"Dear brothers, I am close to you, very close to you in my heart," the pope was quoted as telling the refugees by Italian press agency AGI.

"The children and the elderly are in my heart," Francis also told the Iraqi refugees in the Ankawa camp.

In Baghdad, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako said about 150,000 Christians had been displaced by an offensive spearheaded by IS, which has targeted Christians and other minorities, with dozens leaving Iraq each day.

Iraq's displaced Christians "still live in a tragic situation and there are no quick solutions for them," Sako told AFP.

In Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the occupied West Bank town's biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Christmas in Syria

Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

In his homily, Twal called for "peace in Jerusalem", where violent clashes rocked the city for months, and "equality and mutual respect" among all faiths.

He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 51-day Israeli assault in which more than 2,200 people were killed, all but 72 of them in Gaza.

Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles – the colours of the Palestinian flag.

For many across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has drawn international condemnation.

"For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs," Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.

In Syria, Christians in the war-torn city of Homs were enjoying their first Christmas in three years in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood, with a brightly coloured tree and a manger made from rubble set up in the middle of the ruins.

"Our joy is indescribable," said Taghrid Naanaa while picking out tree decorations at a shop in the district, which the Syrian army recaptured from rebel fighters this year.

All I want for Christmas

In France, the busy Christmas period has been marred by a series of attacks, including one linked to Islamic extremism, which killed one person and left another 25 wounded.

In the United States, officials scrambled to contain renewed anger after an armed black teenager was shot dead by a white officer in a St Louis suburb late Tuesday.

On Christmas morning in Australia, church leaders reflected on several tragedies that hit the country this year, including the Sydney cafe siege, where two hostages and the gunman died, the killings of eight children in Cairns and the Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 flight disasters.

In Sierra Leone, all public Christmas festivities were cancelled as a result of the Ebola crisis, with soldiers deployed over the holiday season to prevent spontaneous street celebrations, officials said.

Ahead of the midnight mass in Bethlehem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas laid out his own Christmas wish list.

"This Christmas we deliver a very special message to the world: All I want for Christmas is justice," he said as the Palestinians press a major diplomatic push at the United Nations to seek an end to Israel's decades-long occupation.