Christians celebrate as leaders urge peace

Christians around the world celebrated Christmas on Tuesday as the Catholic leader in the Holy Land pleaded for peace in the Middle East and Pope Benedict XVI spoke against selfishness.

Iraqi Christians meanwhile celebrated a fearful Christmas in the shadow of suicide bombings and sectarian violence, while Christians from the Gaza Strip crossed a heavily-armed checkpoint into Israel.

Hundreds crossed the checkpoint clutching special permits enabling them to spend Christmas outside the Hamas-run territory.

In Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah said in a sermon for Christmas midnight mass: “This land of God cannot be for some a land of life and for others a land of death, exclusion, occupation, or political imprisonment.

“All those whom God, the lord of history, has gathered here must be able to find in this land life, dignity and security,” he said, addressing thousands of Christians from all over the world in a sermon delivered in his native Arabic.

Sabbah, who last week said peace in the Middle East depended on Israel, reiterated that message in a less direct way on Tuesday.

“It is not up to the weakest to submit themselves and continue to live a life of deprivation; it is up to the strongest, to those who have everything in hand, to detach themselves and to give to the weakest what is due to them.”

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas attended the mass fresh from last month’s meet in the US city of Annapolis, where he formally relaunched the peace process with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Palestinians hope the number of tourists and the income they bring will make it the best Christmas since the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000 and the building of Israel’s massive barrier through the West Bank.

Pope Benedict spoke out against selfishness as he celebrated midnight mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica packed with thousands of worshippers.

“Man is so preoccupied with himself, he has such urgent need of all the space and all the time for his own things, that nothing remains for others — for his neighbour, for the poor, for God,” he said in Italian.

The leader of the world’s 1,1-billion Catholics also spoke of degradation of the environment as thousands listened in the vast basilica and millions more on television.

Recalling Christmas homilies of the fourth-century Bishop Gregory of Nyssa, who lamented a “universe torn and disfigured by sin,” the Pope asked: “What would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation?”

Earlier, the 80-year-old pope kicked off Christmas festivities by lighting a candle for world peace in a window overlooking St Peter’s Square as this year’s nativity scene was unveiled.

Midnight mass is nothing more than a memory for Christians in Baghdad where danger is ever present. The last was celebrated four years ago, before the American invasion in 2003. A mass is now held at dusk on Christmas Eve, and another on the morning of Christmas Day.

Several police cars were parked outside the church, in the Shi’ite district of Karrada. But checks on those entering the building were cursory to non-existent.

According to official figures, the Christian community in Iraq has slumped from around 800 000 in the 1990s to between 400 000 and 600 000 now.

In Afghanistan, Christmas menus and services were planned well in advance in Camp Warehouse, which gathers 2 000 soldiers from 15 countries in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force assisting the Afghan government.

In the Gaza Strip, married couples laden with suitcases and young children, grandparents and others struggled to walk on the long muddy path from the main road to the Erez checkpoint.

Many were hoping to pray on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Others were planning to visit friends and relatives in the occupied West Bank, Israel or Jerusalem.

Israel has imposed a total closure on Gaza since Hamas — a radical Islamist movement officially sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state — seized armed control of the territory six months ago, routing Palestinian moderates.

But in a special dispensation for the holiday, Israel granted permits to 520 of the some 3 500 Christians living in Gaza to leave until January 2 so they could celebrate Christmas and the New Year in Israel and the West Bank.

Cuba’s Catholic church called in its Christmas message on Monday for changes in the communist country to meet the expectations of the people, days after ailing leader Fidel Castro hinted he would not cling to power. – AFP

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