Pope Benedict XVI urged loyal Catholics in China and Iraq to have courage in the face of persecution and limits on their religious freedom, as the largest number of pilgrims in a decade flocked to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem.
Bombings in Nigeria and the Philippines left 11 dead and 11 injured, however, and Christians’ fears in Iraq also marred the Christmas festivities.
Benedict’s traditional holiday speech highlighted the tensions between Beijing and the Vatican and the dangers facing minority Christians in Iraq, where militants have used violent attacks to try to drive them out of the country.
“May the birth of the savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but, persevering in fidelity to Christ and his church, may keep alive the flame of hope,” Benedict prayed.
The pope also expressed hope that Christmas might inspire more respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan and “advance reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.” He prayed that Christians in Haiti would draw hope for the future despite a devastating earthquake and recent cholera epidemic.
In recent weeks, tensions have flared anew between the Vatican and Beijing over the Chinese government’s defiance of the pope’s authority to name bishops and its insistence that prelates loyal to Rome promote China’s state-backed church.
Chinese church officials did not immediately comment late Saturday on the pope’s homily.