VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass in the
splendor of St. Peter's Basilica early Monday with an appeal for abused children
around the world, including child soldiers, beggars and others deprived of
sustenance and love.
"The child of Bethlehem
directs our gaze toward all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the
born and the unborn," Benedict said in his homily, referring to the church's
stand against abortion.
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing as he leaves
St.Peter's Basilica at the Vatican after celebrating the Christmas
Midnight Mass, early Monday, Dec. 25, 2006. [AP]
celebrating Jesus' birth, he said people should direct their thoughts toward
children forced to serve "as soldiers in a violent world, toward children who
have to beg, toward children who suffer deprivation and hunger, toward children
who are unloved.
"Let us pray this night that the brightness of God's love may enfold all
these children," the pontiff said. "Let us ask God to help us do our part so
that the dignity of children may be respected."
Earlier, the pope used his weekly Sunday blessing to ask the world to
overcome prejudice, while some Christians celebrated amid heightened security
due to the threat of terror attacks.
Peace on earth seemed a distant dream this Christmas. Police guarded churches
in Pakistan and Indonesia, and in Bethlehem, there were no Christmas carols this
Queen Elizabeth II sent a special Christmas message to British troops
overseas, telling them "your courage and loyalty are not lightly taken" amid
mounting losses in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The pope began the Midnight Mass, broadcast to 44 nations, with a call for
peace in Latin: "Pax vobis" ("Peace be with you). The faithful responded: "Et
cum spiritu tuo." ("And also with you.")
To symbolize the worldwide reach of the Roman Catholic Church, children in
native costumes from around the world -- including Korea, Poland and Burkina
Faso -- brought flowers to a figure of the Baby Jesus near the altar.
Benedict told worshippers to "not forget the true gift: to give each others
something of ourselves, to give each other something of our time, to open our
time to God."
Christmas gift-giving also means giving to those who cannot give anything
back, he said.
"This is what God has done," the pontiff said.
Twelve hours after the solemn ceremony, the 79-year-old Benedict was
scheduled to deliver the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" speech - Latin for "to
the city and to the world" - to a crowd expected to number in the tens of
thousands in St. Peter's Square.
His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, used this traditional Christmas Day
message to review progress and setbacks for humanity.
Wearing gold-colored vestments, smiling at the faithful and raising a hand in
blessing, Benedict strode up the main aisle to take his place on the central
altar, which was decorated with red poinsettia flowers. He walked around the
altar, sprinkling incense.
Earlier, Benedict delivered his weekly Sunday blessing to a crowd of pilgrims
and tourists gathering in St. Peter's Square, waiting for midnight Mass.
Speaking from a window overlooking the square, the pope said people should
strive to "overcome preconceived ideas and prejudices, tear down barriers and
eliminate contrasts that divide - or worse - set individuals and
peoples against each other, so as to build together a world of justice and
Those barriers loomed large in the predominantly Muslim countries of Pakistan
and Indonesia, where minority Christians attended church under tight security.
There are 31 churches in and around Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and "we
have given security cover to all of them," said Sikandar Hayat, a senior police
Church officials said metal detectors were set up for most services and armed
guards watched over worshippers. Authorities were taking no chances: two
assailants used a grenade to kill three girls at a tiny Protestant village
church in 2002.
"I visited Liberty market last night to buy some gifts," said Masroor Raza,
19, a student at Forman Christian College in the eastern Pakistani city of
Lahore. "I completed my shopping at earliest and hurried away from the market.
You know the security reasons; it's Christmas Eve."
In Jakarta, Indonesian police checked worshippers and searched for bombs at
churches after warnings by Western nations that Islamic militants might be
plotting Christmas attacks.
Indonesian officials played down the alerts, common since Christmas Eve
bombings across the country killed 19 people in 2000. Still, 18,000 officers
were deployed at churches as a precaution, police spokesman Col. I Ketut Untung
Yoga Ana said.
Most of the crowd gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square were local
Palestinians with a sprinkling of foreigners. The Islamic militant group Hamas
now controls the Palestinian government, and some Christians worried about open
There were fewer Christmas decorations in Bethlehem than in the past. For the
first time, no Christmas carols were broadcast over a loudspeaker system.
The day was more upbeat on Flower Street in Kabul, capital of the
overwhelmingly Muslim nation of Afghanistan, where vendors were selling
Christmas trees already decorated with lights and tinsel to foreigners.
"After the Taliban, we started to make Christmas trees because lots of
foreigners are around, and they are asking for them," said Eidy Mohammad, owner
of the Morsal Flower Store. "Business is growing - we had only the wedding
season before, but now we have Christmas as well."
He said he had sold about a dozen Christmas trees, earning anywhere from
US$20 to US$200 - a hefty sum for Afghans, many of whom make only about
US$50 a month.
Money was short supply this Christmas in the southern African nation of
Zimbabwe, where the worst economic crisis since independence has led to
shortages of everything from consumer goods to electricity. Many shops and
factories have not been able to pay traditional holiday bonuses to their