On Christmas, Pope Francis wishes for peace and a better world

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis on Christmas Day is wishing for a better world, with peace for the land of Jesus' birth, Syria and Africa, as well as for the dignity of migrants and refugees fleeing misery and conflict.

Delivering his first annual Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address, Francis spoke from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica Wednesday to tens of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and Romans in the square below.

He said he was joining in the song of Christmas angels with all those hoping "for a better world," and with those who "care for others, humbly." 

Francis also made another appeal for the environment to be saved from "human greed and rapacity".

During his Christmas message, Pope Francis called on atheists to unite with believers of all religions and work for "a homemade peace" that can spread across the world, Reuters reports. He even urged atheists to join forces with believers to achieve peace.

"I invite even non-believers to desire peace. (Join us) with your desire, a desire that widens the heart. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace," he said, drawing sustained applause from the crowd.

Francis's reaching out to atheists and people of other religions is a marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers. 

During his peace appeal, the pontiff singled out Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Iraq. He also prayed for fruitful peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

The pope prayed that Jesus, the "prince of peace," would "bless the land where you chose to come into the world and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Heal the wounds of the beloved country of Iraq, once more struck by frequent acts of violence."

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 in his first Christmas message since being elected pontiff in March. "Peace calls for daily commitment," Francis said, reading the pages of his speech which were ruffled by a chilly wind.

With a reference to attacks on Christians in Africa and parts of the Middle East, Francis prayed that God "protect all who are persecuted in your name."

Recalling the hundreds of migrants who drowned trying to reach European shores, Francis also prayed that refugees receive hope, consolation and assistance.

In the Mideast, pilgrims celebrated Christmas Day 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 has been the largest in years in Bethlehem, and the celebrations have been marked by careful optimism amid ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

On Tuesday, Francis celebrated his first Christmas Eve Mass as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urging people to shun pride and selfishness and open up their hearts to God and their fellow man.  

Francis, who last March became the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, celebrated the solemn Mass for some 10,000 people in a packed St. Peter's Basilica as hundreds of others watched on mega-screens in the square outside.  

On Monday Francis has visited his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, to exchange Christmas greetings. 

Elsewhere, Pilgrims celebrated Christmas Day Wednesday 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 has been the largest in years in Bethlehem and the celebrations have been marked by careful optimism amid ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Leaders expressed hope that 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 as bells rang and tourists from around the world flocked to the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex to see the grotto that is Jesus' traditional birthplace. 

"The whole world now is looking at Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus," Twal said in his annual address. "The Holy Land is where Jesus was born in the grotto and we have to reflect this bright picture of Jesus by representing the morals of Jesus, the message of Jesus - the message of love and reconciliation." 

Bethlehem is 6 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, including for Christmas.

But thanks to a period of relative calm, they have been steadily climbing in recent years - and while still below the record levels of the 1990s, got an extra push this year following the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

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.

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