Pope's message focuses on Mideast, China

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VATICAN CITY -- In his Christmas message Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to the slaughter in Syria and for more meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while encouraging more religious freedom under China's new leaders.

Delivering the traditional speech from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab Spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just and respectful societies.

The pope prayed that China's new leadership may "esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other" to help build a "fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people." It was a clear reference to the Chinese government's often harsh treatment of Catholics loyal to the pontiff instead of to the state-sanctioned church.

As the 85-year-old pontiff, bundled in an ermine-trimmed red cape, gingerly stepped foot on the balcony, the masses in St. Peter's Square erupted in cheers.

Less than 12 hours earlier, Benedict had led a two-hour 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.

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In his "Urbi et Orbi" speech, which reviewed 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 "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, calling it a ploy to bypass negotiations, something the Palestinians deny. Talks stalled four years ago. -- AP


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