Image: Pope Benedict XVI leads the Christmas mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican
Max Rossi  /  Reuters
Pope Benedict XVI leads the Christmas Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica on Friday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/25/2010 7:33:27 AM ET 2010-12-25T12:33:27

Pope Benedict prayed for a rebirth of peace in the Middle East and encouraged Catholics in Iraq and communist China to resist persecution in his Christmas message read amid heightened security on Saturday.

In the "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message, the pontiff said the Christmas message of peace and hope was always new, surprising and daring and should spur everyone in the peaceful struggle for justice.

Speaking from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica to thousands of people braving the chill and drizzle in the square below, he delivered Christmas greetings in 65 languages, including those spoken in the world's trouble spots.

Benedict directly criticized China, where recently Catholics loyal to the pope were forced to attend a series of events by the state-backed Church which does not recognize his authority, bringing relations with the Vatican to a low point.

"May the birth of the Saviour 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," he said.

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"May the love of 'God-with-us' grant perseverance to all those Christian communities enduring discrimination and persecution, and inspire political and religious leaders to be committed to full respect for the religious freedom of all," he added.

Christian communities
Benedict hoped Christmas would bring consolation to Christians in Iraq and all the Middle East, where the Vatican fears that violence such as an October attack by militants on a Baghdad church that killed 52 people is fuelling a Christian exodus from the region.

"May the light of Christmas shine forth anew in the Land where Jesus was born, and inspire Israelis and Palestinians to strive for a just and peaceful coexistence," he said. "May the comforting message of the coming of Emmanuel ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East."

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His message also mentioned "those in Haiti who still suffer in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and the recent cholera epidemic."

He urged a "lasting peace" and "authentic progress" for people in Somalia, the Darfur region of Sudan and the Ivory Coast; "security and respect for human rights" in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and "reconciliation" between North and South Korea.

In his sermon at Friday night's Mass for some 10,000 people inside the basilica, the pope, celebrating the sixth Christmas since his election, prayed for oppressors to be punished.

In the homily, Benedict also recalled the birth of Jesus which is commemorated on Christmas and prayed that the faithful today become more like Christ.

"Help us to recognize your face in others who need our assistance, in those who are suffering or forsaken, in all people, and help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters, so as to become one family, your family," he said.

Guards vigilant
Police were on heightened security in the Vatican and in Rome two days after parcel bombs exploded at the Swiss and Chilean embassies in Rome. Anarchists claimed responsibility for the attacks, which injured one person at each embassy.

More police than normal were seen along the main street leading from the Tiber River to the Vatican, but the atmosphere in the square was festive despite the security and the rain.

Vatican guards were more vigilant on Friday night following security breaches for two consecutive years at Christmas Eve masses by the same woman, Susanna Maiolo.

Last year the woman, who has had a history of mental problems, jumped over a barricade as the pope walked up the basilica's main aisle and managed to pull him to the floor. The year before, she was stopped before she could reach him.

"His guardian angel will protect him and each one of us will be protected," said tourist Gayle Savino, from New York, as she entered the basilica for the pope midnight mass on Friday night.

"It's just a blessing to be here on such a wonderful night on Christ's birthday," she said.

The group claiming responsibility for Thursday's parcel bomb attacks in Rome, the Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI), is well known to Italian police and was described in an intelligence report to parliament last year as "the main national terrorist threat of an anarchist-insurrectionist type."

It gained notoriety in 2003 with a so-called "Santa Claus campaign" against EU institutions which included a parcel bomb sent just before Christmas to Romano Prodi, a former prime minister who at the time was head of the European Commission.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Photos: Christmas around the world

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  1. New Delhi, India

    A Santa Claus distributes sweets to children in New Delhi, India, on Saturday, Dec. 25. (Mustafa Quraishi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Berlin, Germany

    Members of the Berlin Seals swimming club take a dip in an icy Lake Orankesee during their traditional Christmas Day swim in Berlin, Germany. They claim a brief dip in the chilly waters is healthy and improves blood circulation in the body. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Rome, Italy

    A newlywed couple kisses as Pope Benedict XVI finishes his Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) message from the central balcony of Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on Saturday. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Istanbul, Turkey

    Catholic priests pray at the St. Esprit Church during the Midnight Mass in Istanbul, Turkey, on Saturday. (Mustafa Ozer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bethlehem

    The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, carries the statuette of baby Jesus during the Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Saturday. (Fadi Arouri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Afghanistan

    Spc. Steven Galvin from Holstein, Iowa, wears a Santa Claus hat as he returns fire during a sudden attack by Taliban on Combat Outpost Badel in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border on Dec. 24. (Rafiq Maqbool / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Shaanxi Province, China

    A Christmas tree is illuminated beside sculptures of ancient people in the background of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda on Dec. 24 in Xian, China. Christmas is becoming increasingly popular in Chinese consumer culture, along with Valentine's Day in February and Halloween in October. (China Photos / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Sioux Falls, S.D.

    Megan Shaffer, 8, right, holds a candle during the singing of "Silent Night" at the Christmas Eve service at First Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Dec. 24. (Devin Wagner / The Argus Leader via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sudan

    A southern Sudanese man wears a t-shirt reading, "Vote For Your Freedom", as he holds up a cross during a Christmas Eve procession in Juba. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Beirut, Lebanon

    A Christian choir wearing cowboy hats sings during Christmas Eve celebrations on Dec. 24 in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood of east Beirut. (Anwar Amro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Sydney, Australia

    A group of Santa hat-wearing English tourists attempt to build a pyramid while celebrating Christmas Day at Bondi beach in Sydney, on Dec. 25. (Rick Rycroft / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Potomac River, Md.

    Frosty the Snowman pilots his small boat down the Potomac River on Christmas Eve at Maryland's National Harbor, a few miles down the river from Washington, D.C. The Water Skiing Santa, Flying Elves, a Jet-Skiing Grinch, and even Frosty the Snowman, have been appearing on the river for 25 years in freezing temperatures. The annual event attracts thousands of people watching from the shore. (Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Gaza City

    Palestinan boys blow a vuvuzela as they watch the Christmas Eve sunset along the sea front in Gaza City. (Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Los Angeles

    Josiah Joseph, 5, left, of Los Angeles and other children play in fake snow at the Los Angeles Mission. The Christmas Eve event provides food, toys, clothes and other gifts for families in need. (Jason Redmond / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Raphine, Va.

    Floyd Cribbs, of Randlett, Okla., eats lunch at White's Truck Stop on Christmas Eve in Raphine, Va. (Pat Jarrett / The News Leader via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. New York

    People skate on an ice rink while pedestrians look at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City on Christmas Eve. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Cocoa Beach, Fla.

    People dressed as Santa Claus surf at Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Christmas Eve. They had gathered at Surfin' Santa George Trossett's beach house. (Rik Jesse / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. New Delhi

    Children light candles at the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Christmas Eve in New Delhi, India. Christians in India make up just over 2 percent of its one billion residents. (Saurabh Das / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bethlehem

    Nigerian Christians gather for prayers under paintings of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus in the Grotto inside the Church of the Nativity, accepted by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Thousands of pilgrims and tourists take part in the annual procession from Manger Square into the church to mark Jesus' birth. (Jim Hollander / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Beijing

    A girl gestures to a boy to keep silent during a Christmas Eve Mass at the South Cathedral in Beijing. (Alexander F. Yuan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Colorao Springs, Colo.

    Air Force Lt. Col. David Hanson, of Chicago, takes a phone call from a child in Florida at the Santa Tracking Operations Center at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, Colo. Volunteers take as many as 80,000 phone calls from youngsters and adults around the world with questions about Santa and his travels. (Ed Andrieski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Ayutthaya Province, Thailand

    An elephant performs before giving out gifts to students to mark the Christmas season at a school in Thailand's Ayutthaya province. The event was held as part of a campaign to promote Christmas. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Moscow

    A boy lights a candle during a celebration at the Cathedral of Virgin Mary Immaculate Conception in Moscow. (Denis Sinyakov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Bethlehem

    An Armenian priest prays inside the grotto where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. (Oliver Weiken / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Hefei, China

    A teacher dressed as Santa distributes candy to children at a kindergarten in Hefei, Anhui province, China, on Dec. 23. (Jianan Yu / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Mustafa Quraishi / AP
    Above: Slideshow (25) Christmas around the world
  2. Image: A Christmas tree installed with lanterns, measuring over 10 meters high, is illuminated in Shaanxi Province, China
    China Photos / Getty Images Contributor
    Slideshow (25) Holiday lights
  3. Image: A man dressed as Santa Claus distributes sweets to children at St. Anthony Church on Christmas Day in Lahore
    Mohsin Raza / Reuters
    Slideshow (30) Faces of Santa

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