Pope’s Christmas prayer urges Syria peace

Christmas this year comes as conflicts have stricken Christians across the Arab region

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Pope Francis called for humanitarian aid access in Syria and “social harmony” in South Sudan on his first Christmas in the Vatican after a year shaking up the papacy with his humble style and common touch.

Francis also pleaded for divine aid to rescue child soldiers “robbed of their childhood” and for peace in the conflict-torn Central African Republic which he said was “often forgotten and overlooked.”

Francis spoke from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica Wednesday to tens of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and Romans in the square below. He said he was joining in the song of Christmas angels with all those hoping “for a better world,” and with those who “care for others, humbly.”

Christmas this year comes as conflicts have stricken Christians across the region, from the historic Syrian town of Maaloula where residents still speak Jesus’s ancient Aramaic, to the ongoing Middle East conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a Christmas Day sermon in Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby condemned the treatment of Christian communities in the Middle East who are being “attacked and massacred” and the ongoing suffering in South Sudan.

“We see injustice in the ever more seriously threatened Christian communities of the Middle East,” he said.

“They are attacked and massacred, driven into exile from a region in which their presence has always been essential.

“We see terrible news in South Sudan, where political ambitions have led towards ethnic conflict. On Saturday I was speaking to a bishop under siege, in a compound full of the dying,” Welby will say.

“The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other,” said Latin Patriarch Archbishop Fuad Twal - the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land - as he arrived in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

In a Christmas message last week, Twal spoke of the sufferings of the Palestinian people and the vicious conflict that has rocked Syria for 33 months.

Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, said Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that resumed in July after a three-year hiatus were being hampered by Israeli settlement construction.

“As long as this problem is not resolved, the people of our region will suffer,” said Twal, adding the Israel-Palestinian conflict was “a major obstacle” to Middle East stability.

The number of visitors to Bethlehem has been steadily rising in recent years as peace talks to resolve the Middle East conflict have resumed, according to the BBC.

Eastern Christians number between an estimated 10 and 13 million, with minorities living in Muslim-majority Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories, as well as Israel.

(With AFP)