|The pope urged Catholics in Iraq and China to resist persecution [AFP]
Pope Benedict XVI has ushered in Christmas with his speech at the Vatican urging Catholics in Iraq and China to resist persecution.
In his "Urbi et Orbi" [to the city and the world] message on Saturday, he said he also prayed for peace in the Middle East, and that 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.
"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.
He 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 on a church in Baghdad killed 52 people is fuelling a Christian exodus from the region.
Benedict also directly criticised China, where recently Catholics loyal to the pope were forced to attend a series of events by the state-backed church which does not recognise his authority, bringing relations with the Vatican to a low point.
Christmas Eve ceremony
A Christmas Eve ceremony was also held on Friday in Vatican City, which followed package bombings at two embassies in the Italian capital, Rome, a day earlier.
The mass also came in the wake of Christmas Eve security breaches at the Vatican the previous two years.
But this year's service proceeded without incident, as Benedict marched down the central aisle of St Peter's Basilica to begin what is known as Midnight Mass. With his normal phalanx of bodyguards on either side, he stopped several times to bless babies held up to him from the pews.
During the same service in 2008 and 2009, a mentally disturbed woman lunged at the pope as he proceeded down the aisle. Last year she managed to pull him to the ground.
In his homily on Friday, Benedict recalled the birth of Jesus, which is commemorated on Christmas, and prayed that the faithful would become more like Christ.
"Help us to recognise 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.
Around the world
Elsewhere, thousands of people gathered to celebrate Christmas at Manger Square in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.
Tourists, pilgrims and clergy converged on Christianity's holiest city as boy scouts marching bands played outside the Church of the Nativity.
Candles were lit inside the church, identified by Christian tradition as the site where Jesus was born in a stable two millennia ago.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Tawal, the archbishop of Jerusalem and the Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land, conducted mass at midnight local time.
Officials said the turnout shaped up to be the largest since 2000.
Meanwhile in China, hundreds of people crammed a historic Beijing cathedral on Friday to observe a Christmas Eve mass.