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Marking Epiphany, Pope Laments Recent Violence

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI is stunned by the wave of violence and intolerance toward Christians around the world, Italy's top churchman said Thursday at Epiphany services.

"Together with the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, we are stunned in the face of religious intolerance and so much violence, and we are asking ourselves, in sorrow: why?" said Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of Italy's bishops conference in an Epiphany homily in Genoa. Bagnasco, in his role at the influential Italian bishops body, works closely with the pontiff and other Vatican officials.

Christian Copts in Egypt, where a bomb outside a church on Jan. 1 killed 21 people, mark Christmas on Jan. 7, will flock to Christmas vigil services on Thursday evening. Other Orthodox Christians also celebrate Jesus' birth on Jan. 7.

Photos: Europe Celebrates the Epiphany

Speaking from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, Benedict told pilgrims and tourists he was offering heartfelt greeting and wishes to "the brothers and sisters of the Eastern churches who tomorrow will celebrate Holy Christmas."

He prayed that Christians would be "strengthened in faith, hope and charity" and that "comfort be given to communities that are suffering" - a reference to the wave of violence.

Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Magi to baby Jesus.

On Wednesday, thousands of parents and children packed the sidewalks of cities and towns across Spain to watch parades marking the eve of the holiday.

In the largest parade, in Madrid, tens of thousands of people weathered icy rain to see dozens of ornately decorated floats roll down the main Paseo de la Castellana boulevard accompanied by clowns, fantasy figures, jugglers and marching bands in a nationally televised three-hour event.

Adults and children in costumes threw sweets from the floats to the children below.

The processions - easily Spain's most popular - are held each Jan. 5 on the eve of the Epiphany. They celebrate the story of the three wise men believed to have followed a bright star to offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem.

Although Christmas has become popular in recent years, children in Spain write letters to the Magi instead of to Santa Claus, asking for gifts that are left for them on Jan. 6, a national holiday in Spain.

But despite the celebrations, the Pope's Epiphany message in Rome focused a perceived wave of recent anti-Christian violence and addressed repeatedly of late.

Deadly attacks on Christians also bloodied Christmas celebrations Dec. 25 in Nigeria and the Philippines. Catholics in Baghdad have been worshipping in a bloodstained basilica since an assault there last fall claimed 68 lives, including those of two priests.

Asking why "voices the chilling question that is rising from so many places on Earth," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Bagnasco as saying in Genoa's cathedral.

Italian authorities said they were increasing security measures outside churches for Christmas services for the tiny Coptic minority in Rome, Milan and elsewhere in Italy.

"We feel bitterness and sorrow for what we suffered in Egypt," Coptic Orthodox Bishop Barnaba el Soryany, told Associated Press Television News. He add that while there will be a Mass, there will be no festivities. "How can we celebrate Christmas after all that happened in Egypt?" the bishop said, speaking at the Virgin Mary Coptic church in Rome.

Benedict earlier marked the Roman Catholic church's last major Christmas period holiday on Thursday by celebrating Epiphany Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.

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