In Christmas message, pope speaks out on conflicts, migrants

AFP , Friday 25 Dec 2015

Pope Francis
Pope Francis stands at the balcony of St Peter's basilica during the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" Christmas message to the city and the world, on December 25, 2015 at St Peter's square in Vatican (AFP)

Pope Francis offered a Christmas message Friday of mitigated hope for an end to the world's conflicts, backing recent accords on Syria and Libya and 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 and South Sudan following a year of violence and suffering that forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

The pope, addressing tens of thousands of pilgrims in the sunny square, also decried "brutal acts of terrorism, particularly the recent massacres which took place in Egyptian airspace, in Beirut, Paris, Bamako and 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 and states, who generously work to provide assistance and welcome" to them.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics also used the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address to denounce the destruction of cultural heritage.

In a clear reference to ISIS, he said their "atrocities... do not even spare the historical and cultural patrimony of entire peoples."

ISIS has launched a campaign of destruction against buildings and 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.

The plight of embattled Christians in the Middle East, especially where they have been threatened by the advance of ISIS, has been thrown into the spotlight this year, and in Iraq, the mood was sombre.

"We are praying for the restoration of peace and security and 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.

She said 12 of her relatives lost their homes when ISIS took over Iraq's second city Mosul in 2014 and 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 ISIS, labelling the group a modern-day version of the tyrannical biblical king Herod.

ISIS has attacked Christians, Yazidis, Shiites and other minorities across the region, killing thousands and uprooting ancient communities from ancestral lands.

"They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, and 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 and heralded only by the angel of death."

He likened ISIS to Herod, who according to historical accounts killed several members of his own family and in the Bible massacred Bethlehem's male infants to prevent the prophesied rise of Jesus.

The Middle East is home to ancient Christian and other minority communities, but their numbers have diminished rapidly in recent years amid war and mounting religious intolerance.

In many countries across the world, Christians were fearful for their future, and some were even prohibited from celebrating the holy day.

In Niger, where anti-Christian riots in January left several people dead and destroyed many Christian churches and schools, police stood on guard as worshippers filed in for Christmas services.

In her annual Christmas address Friday, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain highlighted the triumph of good 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, and 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 also seen a string of mass casualty attacks in countries including Nigeria, Syria and 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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