|Pope Benedict XVI led the New Year solemn mass in Saint Peter's Basilica ahead of his speech [EPA]
Pope Benedict XVI has urged Christians to remain strong in the face of intolerance and violence in a New Year's appeal that comes hours after a bomb blast outside an Egyptian church killed 21 people.
He has repeatedly denounced a campaign against Christians in Iraq undertaken by al Qaeda-affiliated fighters, including an October attack on a Catholic church that claimed over 50 lives.
"In the face of threatening tensions of the moment, especially in the face of disrimination, of abuse of power and religous intolerance that today particularly strikes Christians, I again direct a pressing invitation not to yield to discouragement and resignation," Benedict said in his homily at St Peter's Basilica.
The Vatican is very worried that a steady exodus of minority Christians from Iraq will permanently reduce their numbers and discourage the wider community of Christians in the Middle East.
Benedict cited what he termed two negative extremes at work in the world: secularism, "pushing religion to the margins to confine it to the private sphere", and fundamentalism, "which instead would like to impose [religion] with force on all".
The Vatican celebrates New Year's as World Peace Day, and Benedict urged world leaders to make a "concrete and constant commitment" to help bring peace.
He recalled his speech last month in which he "stressed that religious freedom is the essential element of a state of law - you cannot deny it without, at the same time, undermining all rights and fundamental freedoms."
After leaving the basilica, Bendict removed his gold-colored robes, donned an ermine-trimmed crimson cape to guard against the chill, and greeted pilgrims and tourists in a packed St. Peter's Square from his apartment window.
The new year, he said, is an opportunity to reflect "on the great challenges that our epoch poses to humanity".
"Wherever religious freedom is effectively recognised, the dignity of the human person is respected to its root, and through a sincere search for truth and good, moral consciences are shored up and institutions and civil coexistence are reinforced," Benedict said.
He also announced that in October he will make a pilgrimage to Assisi and invited non-Catholic Christians as well as world religious leaders to join him in the Umbrian hill town of St Francis.
He said he wanted to mark the 25th anniversary of a similar pilgrimage made by Pope John Paul II and highlight his conviction that "the great religions of the world can constitute an important factor of unity and peace for the human family".