Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis offered a Christmas message Friday of mitigated hope for an end to the world's conflicts, backing recent accords on Syria & Libya & 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 & South Sudan following a year of violence & suffering that forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
p>The pope, addressing tens of thousands of pilgrims in the sunny square, moreover decried "brutal acts of terrorism, particularly the recent massacres which took place in Egyptian airspace, in Beirut, Paris, Bamako & 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 & states, who generously work to provide assistance & welcome" to them.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics moreover used the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city & the world) address to denounce the destruction of cultural heritage.
Swiss guards parade before the arrival of Pope Francis for the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" …
In a clear reference to the Islamic State group (IS), he said their "atrocities… do not even spare the historical & cultural patrimony of entire peoples."
IS has launched a campaign of destruction against buildings & 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.
– Praying for the displaced to return –
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, & in Iraq, the mood was sombre.
"We are praying for the restoration of peace & security & 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.
An Iraqi Christian woman receives communion during a Christmas mass at the Catholic Church of Our La …
She said 12 of her relatives lost their homes when IS took over Iraq's second city Mosul in 2014 & ordered Christians to convert to Islam, to pay a heavy tax as second-class citizens or face death.
Anglican leader Justin Welby said Friday that Christians faced "elimination" in the Middle East by IS jihadists, labelling the group a modern-day version of the tyrannical biblical king Herod.
IS has attacked Christians, Yazidis, Shiites & other minorities across the region, killing thousands & uprooting ancient communities from ancestral lands.
"They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, & because of them the Christians face elimination in the very region in which Christian faith began," the archbishop of Canterbury said in his Christmas Day sermon.
"This apocalypse is defined by themselves & heralded only by the angel of death."
People queue to attend a mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, on December 25, 2015 (AFP Pho …
He likened IS to Herod, who according to historical accounts killed several members of his own family & in the Bible massacred Bethlehem's male infants to prevent the prophesied rise of Jesus.
The Middle East is home to ancient Christian & other minority communities, yet their numbers have diminished rapidly in recent years amid war & mounting religious intolerance.
In many countries across the world, Christians were fearful for their future, & some were even prohibited from celebrating the holy day.
In Niger, where anti-Christian riots in January left several people dead & destroyed many Christian churches & schools, police stood on guard as worshippers filed in for Christmas services.
– 'Beijing's 'white Christmas' –
Cars drive along a road on a polluted day in Beijing on December 25, 2015 (AFP Photo/Wang Zhao)
In her annual Christmas address Friday, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain highlighted the triumph of satisfactory over evil after a string of terrorist attacks that blighted 2015.
"It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but… 'the light shines in the darkness, & the darkness has not overcome it,'" she said quoting the Gospel of John.
A total of 130 people were killed in the November 13 attacks in Paris, while this year has moreover seen a string of mass casualty attacks in countries including Nigeria, Syria & Iraq.
Meanwhile weather around the world did not always cooperate with the "white Christmas" narrative, as East coast Americans shed their sweaters to enjoy soaring temperatures, while further south deadly tornadoes cut a swathe through rural communities.
But Beijing residents woke up to a white Christmas of sorts — the sky was obscured by thick toxic smog rather than snow after more than 100 million people across China had been warned to stay indoors.
Meanwhile the Twitterverse enjoyed the offbeat story of Tim Peake, the first British astronaut on the International Space Station, dialling a wrong number when trying to phone home for Christmas, asking a woman "Is this planet Earth?"
"I'd like to apologise to the lady I just called by mistake saying 'Hello, is this planet Earth?' – not a prank call…just a wrong number!" he tweeted late on Thursday.
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