Religious leaders urge peace for Christmas

The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, a Palestinian, called on Monday on Middle East leaders to become “peacemakers” and condemned inter-Palestinian fighting, as the pope used his Christmas message to appeal for respect of the “dignity of children”.

“Christmas has come this year in difficult circumstances, made even worse by internal squabbles,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah said in his sermon at the chapel beside the Church of the Nativity in the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Despite clear skies and crisp weather, the mood was grim in Bethlehem as the faithful flocked to Manger Square for the annual Christmas celebrations.

“The fratricidal struggle is leading toward more deaths and a new slavery that we are imposing on ourselves,” said the first Palestinian to become Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, speaking in Arabic and French.

The fighting between the military wings of Hamas and Fatah since December 16 has resulted in 15 dead and more than 100 wounded.

Several thousand people milled in front of the Church of the Nativity ahead of the traditional midnight Mass that this year took place against the backdrop of a dire economic crisis due to a Western freeze imposed after the Islamist Hamas formed a government in March.

Largely deserted by foreign tourists who provide much of the city’s income, cut off from neighbouring Jerusalem by Israel’s security barrier, and worried about repercussions of inter-Palestinian violence, Bethlehem is living “one of the darkest chapters in its history”, said the city’s mayor, Viktor Batarseh.

Pope Benedict XVI, meanwhile, appealed for the respect of the “dignity of children” during midnight Mass attended by thousands at St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and watched by millions more on television.

With the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem, God “teaches us respect for children”, the pope said in his homily broadcast live on 73 television stations in 47 countries. “The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn,” said the spiritual leader of the world’s 1,1-billion Catholics.

Benedict, celebrating his second midnight Mass since his election in April 2005, pointed to “children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world ... children who have to beg ...
children who suffer deprivation and hunger ... children who are unloved.”

In Asia, there were no immediate reports of violence that had been feared for the religious holiday.

Midnight Mass was celebrated throughout the Philippines under a heightened security alert as Muslim extremists, linked to the al-Qaeda terror network, have previously launched bombing attacks during holidays.

In Indonesia, Christmas services were also held without incident as about 18 000 police and troops guarded churches and mosques across Jakarta amid warnings from Australia and the United States of possible attacks.

Indonesia was hit by a wave of 38 bomb attacks on Christmas Eve 2000 in which 19 people died.

In Vietnam, thousands gathered at Hanoi’s central cathedral on Sunday night for an outdoor Mass, with a choir of more than 300 singers.

Holidaymakers in India thronged the beaches of Goa but there was tight security in the area, with metal detectors installed in major churches following a federal government terror-attack advisory last month.

Traditional celebrations were in full swing, too, in Australia—where Christmas falls smack in the middle of the summer.

But some residents awoke to a white Christmas, with snowfalls being recorded at Mount Wellington near Hobart, capital of the island state Tasmania, and Mount Buller in the alpine area of Victoria state, which has experienced devastating bushfires.

“It’s unusual but not without precedent,” said meteorology bureau forecaster Shane Wells. “It’s happened a few times.”—Sapa-AFP

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