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Pope calls for Middle East peace

Pope Benedict XVI prays for an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians during his Christmas Midnight Mass.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses children as he celebrates the Christmas Midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, early on Dec 25 2008.
Pope Benedict XVI blesses children as he celebrates the Christmas Midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, early on Dec 25 2008.

VATICAN CITY // Pope Benedict XVI prayed for an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians during his Christmas Midnight Mass early this morning. In the splendour of St Peter's Basilica, Pope Benedict called for an end to "hatred and violence" in the Middle East as his thoughts turned to the Holy Land. "Let us think also of the place named Bethlehem, of the land in which Jesus lived, and which he loved so deeply," he said. "Let us pray that peace will be established there, that hatred and violence will cease. Let us pray for mutual understanding, that hearts will be opened, so that borders can be opened."

Pope Benedict is expected to visit the Holy Land in May for what would be the first papal trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since the late Pope John Paul II travelled there in a 2000 pilgrimage. Also in his homily, Pope Benedict sent out an appeal for children who are abused, forced to live on the street or serve as soldiers. He called to the faithful to help children who are denied the love of their parents and those who are exploited across the world.

"The Child of Bethlehem summons us once again to do everything in our power to put an end to the suffering of these children," he said. He recalled the plight of "street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace." As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of St Peter's Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

Thousands of pilgrims, Romans and tourists packed the basilica for the midnight service. For those unable to enter there were giant screens set up in St Peter's Square. Earlier, as night fell on Christmas Eve, Pope Benedict appeared briefly at his studio window to bless the crowd in chilly St Peter's Square and light a single candle in a sign of peace. A choir sang a Psalm, as Pope Bendict sprinkled incense on the central altar under Bernini's towering bronze baldachin before opening the service with the traditional wish for peace in Latin: pax vobis (peace be with you). As he left the basilica through the main aisle, a person who had jumped through security barriers got close to the pope but was quickly stopped by security staff.

The Vatican's spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said he did not know who the person was but added that the disturbance had not caused any problems. "The Holy Father continued on his way calmly. I imagine it was someone who wanted to greet him or pay homage to him," he said. "I have no reason to believe he was armed." The Vatican's Christmas festivities began with the unveiling of the larger-than-life Nativity scene next to the Vatican's largest-ever Christmas tree in St Peter's Square. Children in red-and-white Christmas hats sang Italian holiday hymns as the Vatican's band played alongside.

Today Pope Benedict delivers his traditional Christmas Day speech from the balcony of St Peter's, in which he often touches on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican. * AP