Pope Benedict XVI marked Christmas Eve with Mass in St. Peter's Basilica and prayed that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and freedom. He also asked the faithful to pray for strife-torn Syria as well as Lebanon and Iraq.
The ceremony began at 10 pm local time Monday with the blare of trumpets, meant to symbolize Christian joy over the news of Christ's birth in Bethlehem. As midnight neared, church bells tolled throughout Rome, while inside the basilica, the sweet voices of the Vatican's boys' choir resounded joyously.
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In his homily, Benedict cited the Gospel account of Mary and Joseph finding no room at an inn and ending up in a stable which sheltered the baby Jesus. He urged people to reflect upon what they find time for in their busy, technology-driven lives.
Pope Benedict XVI in Rome (Photo: AFP)
"The great moral question of our attitude toward the homeless, toward refugees and migrants takes on a deeper dimension: Do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him?" the Pope said.
Security outside Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Photo: EPA)
With his voice a bit hoarse, and looking somewhat tired as the two-hour ceremony neared its end, Benedict decried that history has suffered through "misuse of religion," when belief in one God became a pretext for intolerance and violence. Still, he insisted that where God is "forgotten or even denied, there is no peace either."
"Let us pray that Israelis and Palestinians be able to live their lives in the peace of the one God and in freedom," the Pope said.
Benedict also mentioned his hope for progress in Syria, which is mired in civil war, as well as Lebanon and Iraq.
Feeling the Christmas spirit in Bethlehem (Photo: Reuters)
Reflecting the Vatican's concern about the exodus of many fearful Christians from the Muslim-dominated Middle East, Benedict expressed hope that "Christians in those lands where our faith was born maybe be able to continue living there" and that Christians and Muslims "build up their countries side by side in God's peace."
Hours before the basilica Mass, Benedict lit a Christmas peace candle on the windowsill of his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square.
Meanwhile, thousands of Christians from the world over packed Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the ancient West Bank town where he was born.
Festivities led up to the Midnight Mass at St. Catherine's Church, next to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
Palestinian kids with giant Christmas tree (Photo: AFP)
"From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East," said the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal in his annual address.
"Please continue to fight for a just cause to achieve peace and security for the people of the Holy Land."
In his pre-Christmas homily, Twal said the road to actual freedom was still long, but this year's festivities were doubly joyful, celebrating "the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine."
Midnight mass in Bethlehem (Photo: Reuters)
"The path (to statehood) remains long, and will require a united effort," added Twal, a Palestinian citizen of Jordan, at the patriarchate's headquarters in Jerusalem's Old City.
Then he set off in a procession for the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace.
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, resplendent with strings of lights, decorations and a 17-meter (55-foot) Christmas tree, took on a festival atmosphere, as pilgrims mixed with locals.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem and said "peace will prevail from the birthplace of Jesus, and we wish everyone peace and happiness," according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a special Christmas greeting too, wishing Christians "a year of security, prosperity and peace."
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