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Pope Benedict XVI calls on new Chinese leaders to respect religion

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI wished Christmas peace to the world Tuesday, decrying the slaughter of the “defenseless” in Syria and urging Israelis and Palestinians to find the courage to negotiate.

He prayed that China's new leaders respect religion, a reference to persecution Chinese Roman Catholics have at times endured under communism.

Benedict called on China's new leaders to “esteem the contributions of the religions” during his traditional Christmas message.

Speaking of “the high task that awaits them,” the pontiff said he hoped the new leaders 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.

Delivering the Vatican's traditional Christmas day message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just and respectful societies.

As the 85-year-old pontiff, bundled up in an ermine-trimmed red cape, gingerly stepped foot on the balcony, the pilgrims, tourists and Romans below backing St. Peter's Square erupted in cheers.

Less than 12 hours earlier, Benedict had led a two-hour long Christmas Eve ceremony in the basilica. He sounded hoarse and looked weary as he read his Christmas message and then holiday greetings in 65 languages.

In his “Urbi et Orbi” speech, which traditionally reviews world events and global challenges, Benedict prayed that “peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims.”

He called for easier access to help refugees and for “dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”

Benedict prayed that God “grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation.”

Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, saying it was a ploy to bypass negotiations, something the Palestinians deny. Talks stalled four years ago.

Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said that in a meeting with the pope last week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “emphasized our total readiness to resume negotiations.” The Palestinians have not dropped their demand that Israel first stop settlement activities before returning to the negotiating table.

Hours earlier, in the ancient Bethlehem church built over the site where tradition holds Jesus was born, candles illuminated the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.

Overcast skies and a cold wind in the Holy Land didn't dampen the spirits of worshippers in the biblical West Bank town. Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as Christian faithful waited to see the grotto that is Jesus' traditional birthplace.



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Pope Benedict XVI delivers his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and to the world) speech from the central loggia of St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 25. (AP)

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