Benedict XVI
Andrew Medichini  /  AP
Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing as he leaves after celebrating Christmas Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Saturday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/25/2011 10:09:20 AM ET 2011-12-25T15:09:20

Pope Benedict called for an end to violence in Syria and a resumption of Middle East peace talks on Sunday on a Christmas Day marred by a bomb blast at a Catholic Church in Nigeria.

The leader of the world's 1.3 billion Roman Catholics delivered his twice-yearly "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message and blessing to tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square on a crisp but clear day as millions of others watched on television around the world.

At the end of his address, the 84-year-old pope, celebrating the seventh Christmas season of his pontificate, delivered Christmas greetings in 65 languages, including Turkish, Hebrew, Arabic, Swahili, Hindi, Urdu and Chinese.

"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts which even today stain the earth with blood," he said, speaking in Italian from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica.

"May the Prince of Peace grant peace and stability to that Land where he chose to come into the world, and encourage the resumption of dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed," he said in a firm, steady voice.

His Christmas plea for peace around the world was brutally ignored in Nigeria, where an explosion Sunday claimed by Muslim extremists ripped through a Catholic church during Mass.

Authorities say at least 25 people were killed by the explosion at the St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, near the Nigerian capital, Abuja. A radical Muslim sect waging a sectarian fight claimed the attack and another bombing near a church in the restive city of Jos.

Story: Dozens die as Christmas Day bombings sweep Nigeria

The assaults come a year after a series of Christmas Eve bombings in Jos claimed by the militants left at least 32 dead and 74 wounded.

Benedict didn't refer explicitly to the bombings in his Christmas Day survey of the world's trouble spots, delivered from the sun-drenched loggia of St. Peter's Basilica. But the Vatican issued a statement denouncing them as a sign of "cruelty and absurd, blind hatred" that shows no respect for human life.

Elsewhere, Christians braved lashing rains and wind to celebrate Christmas Mass in Jesus' traditional birthplace on Bethlehem's Manger Square. St. Catherine's Church is attached to the smaller Church of the Nativity, which is built over a grotto where the faithful believe Jesus was born.

"We wanted to be part of the action," said Don Moore, 41, a psychology professor from Berkeley, Calif., who came to Bethlehem with his family. "This is the place, this is where it all started. It doesn't get any more special than that."

The holy town of Bethlehem is no stranger to violence. Like the rest of the West Bank, it fell on hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000. Although civil affairs in the biblical town on Jerusalem's southeastern outskirts are run by Palestinian authorities, security control remains in the hands of Israel, which built a barrier around three sides of the town to keep Palestinian attackers out.

Palestinians say the barrier has badly hurt the local economy, which depends heavily on tourism, by severely restricting movement in and out of the town.

But as the violence has subsided, tourists have returned in large numbers. On Saturday, turnout for Christmas Eve festivities in Bethlehem was at its highest since the uprising began driving tourists away. An estimated 100,000 visitors streamed into Manger Square on Christmas Eve, up from 70,000 the previous year, according to the Israeli military's count.

Speaking just a few hours after celebrating a late-night Christmas Eve Mass, Benedict said he prayed that the birth of Jesus, which Christmas celebrates, would send a message to all who need to be saved from hardships.

He cited refugees from the Horn of Africa and flood victims in Thailand, among others, and called for greater political dialogue in Myanmar, and stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa's Great Lakes region, which includes Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.

In the piazza below, thousands of jubilant tourists and pilgrims, and hundreds of colorful Swiss Guards and Italian military bands mingled around the Vatican's giant Christmas tree and larger-than-life sized nativity scene.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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