Pope calls for end to bloodshed in Syria

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More than 44,000 people have been killed in Syria since the outbreak in March 2011 of an anti-regime revolt that became a bloody insurgency after a brutal crackdown, a rights group said last week.

The pope’s wide-ranging “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) message, heard by some 40,000 pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, also pointed to hotspots across Africa and urged religious freedom in China, and as usual called for peace in the Middle East.

The pope prayed for “Israelis and Palestinians (to be granted the) courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path of negotiation.”

Turning to Africa, he lamented “savage acts of terrorism” that frequently target Christian churches in Nigeria.

The 85-year-old pontiff prayed for “concord in Nigeria, where savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.”

The Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has often targeted churches in its bloody insurgency, as well as police and other symbols of the establishment in Nigeria.

Violence linked to the insurgency is believed to have left some 3,000 people dead since 2009, including killings by the security forces.

The pope also prayed for "help and comfort to the refugees from the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” where a rebel campaign caused tens of thousands to flee their homes, and peace in Kenya, “where brutal attacks have struck the civilian population and places of worship.”

He also urged peace in Mali, where Islamist insurgents have occupied large swathes of the desert north since a March coup.

Turning to China, the German pope called on the new leadership to “esteem the contributions of the religions.”

Speaking of “the high task that awaits them,” the pontiff said he hoped the new leaders unveiled in November would “help build a fraternal society for that noble people and of the whole world.”

China and the Vatican severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after the latter recognized the Nationalist Chinese government in Taipei, a rival to the communist regime in Beijing.

Although Beijing and the Vatican have improved relations in recent years as China’s Catholic population has grown, they remain at odds over which side has the authority to ordain priests.

About 5.7 million Chinese belong to the state-run Catholic church, according to official figures. Independent estimates say 12 million Chinese Catholics worship in unauthorized churches and are loyal to the pope.

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