Pope prays for peace as Nigeria hit by church attacks
Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the victims of famine, floods and conflict in his Christmas message Sunday as a string of bomb attacks targeting churches in Nigeria killed dozens.
The pope notably called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and said he hoped this year's Arab revolts would aid the "common good".
"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts which even today stain the earth with blood.... May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed," said the 84-year-old pontiff.
The pope's strongest words were against wars and in favour of reconciliation, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land but also in the Great Lakes region of Africa and the new nation of South Sudan.
"May he grant renewed vigour to all elements of society in the countries of north Africa and the Middle East as they strive to advance the common good," he told thousands of pilgrims at the Vatican in a year that saw the ousters of dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
In religiously divided Nigeria, at least 40 people were killed when five separate bomb attacks claimed by Islamist sect Boko Haram targeted churches during Christmas services.
A purported Boko Haram spokesman claimed responsibility for all of Sunday's attacks in Africa's most populous nation, which also included a suicide bombing outside the offices of secret police in the northeastern city of Damaturu. Abul Qaqa also told AFP the group would launch more attacks "in the next few days."
The United States and European leaders expressed revulsion at the brutal violence, with the White House saying it has been in contact with Nigerian officials "about what initially appear to be terrorist acts and pledge to assist them in bringing those responsible to justice."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "Even on Christmas Day, the world is not spared from cowardice and the fear of terrorism."
Benedict urged the international community to aid those suffering from hunger in the Horn of Africa and prayed for the victims of recent flooding in Thailand and the Philippines which he said were enduring "grave hardships."
Thousands of flood survivors queued for Christmas meals in evacuation centres in the Philippines, where a devastating storm last week left more than 2,000 dead or missing and some 328,000 others relying on emergency aid.
Australians endured intense Christmas weather, with a tropical cyclone closing in on the north as tornadoes and thunderstorms brought hail in the south and huge swells forced holiday revellers off popular beaches.
Britain's royal family marked a subdued Christmas, with Princes William and Harry visiting their grandfather Prince Philip in hospital where the queen's 90-year-old husband was recovering from heart surgery to clear a blocked artery.
The queen stressed the importance of family and friendship in her annual pre-recorded Christmas address to the nation, saying that in times of hardship we often "find strength from our families."
That fortitude was on display in Fort Hood, Texas on Christmas Eve, when 200 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division made it home in time for the holiday after being among the last US troops to leave Iraq.
"I'm glad that it's over with," said Specialist Chancy Cotton, who was among the first US troops to invade Iraq in 2003 and the last to leave last weekend.
While the run-up to Christmas is marked by a global shopping frenzy that has only grown in intensity in recent years, the pope lamented the consumerism surrounding the holiday.
"Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light," he said during Christmas Eve mass in Saint Peter's Basilica.
Peace was also a central theme in Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal's Christmas Eve homily delivered in Bethlehem, where hotels and guesthouses were packed to capacity with pilgrims.
"We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East," said Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic in the region.
In a midnight mass, he urged "the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa."
Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, saw some of its largest crowds of tourists in years, bringing cheer to the troubled West Bank, while celebrations also passed without incident in Iraq.
© 2011 AFP