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Christians in Middle East mark Christmas

Pope Francis, in first Christmas Eve mass, urges people to open hearts to God as celebrations take place in Middle East.

Last updated: 25 Dec 2013 10:19
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Pope Francis led the midnight Christmas Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican [EPA]

Pope Francis, celebrating his first Christmas as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, has urged people to open up their hearts to God, as Christians in the Middle East held celebrations despite unrest in some nations.

Francis, who last March became the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, celebrated a solemn Christmas Eve Mass on Tuesday for some 10,000 people in a packed St. Peter's Basilica as hundreds of others watched on mega-screens in the square outside.

“If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us," the 77-year-old Argentinean said in Vatican City.

Francis, who celebrated the Mass with more than 300 cardinals, bishops and priests, urged people not to be afraid to reach out to God.

"Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is our peace," he said.

The great bells of the basilica, the same that rang to announce his election on March 13, sounded when the Sistine Chapel Choir intoned the Gloria, a prayer which starts with the words the Bible says angels sang on the night Jesus was born in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Remembrance in Bethlehem

From this holy place, we remember all the adversities in our world: from civil wars in Africa to the typhoon in the Philippines, the difficult situation in Egypt and in Iraq, the tragedy playing out in Syria.

Patriarch Fuad Twal

In Bethlehem itself, Jerusalem's Latin patriarch Fuad Twal celebrated a midnight mass attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists made their way past Israel's controversial separation wall to reach the Palestinian West Bank town.

In a homily delivered at the Christmas Eve mass, Twal called for a "just and equitable solution" to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Twal, himself a Palestinian, also expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, particularly families with relatives imprisoned by Israel or those who have suffered as a result of the conflict with Israel.

In order to enter Bethlehem, Twal's motorcade too had to cross through the hulking concrete wall that Israel built during the Palestinian uprising. It took him nearly 90 minutes to make the short trip to the Church of the Nativity compound.

"From this holy place, we remember all the adversities in our world: from civil wars in Africa to the typhoon in the Philippines, the difficult situation in Egypt and in Iraq, the tragedy playing out in Syria," he said.

Christmas in Syria

In Syria, Christians were marking Christmas Eve in a subdued fashion as their country is engulfed by civil war.

Christians in Damascus prayed for an end to the nearly three-year conflict that has left tens of thousands of people dead.

The Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X asked for mercy for the war-torn country.

The celebration came just two days after a series of air strikes bombarded the city of Aleppo, killing scores of people, including children.

Syria's Christian community, about 10 percent of the population, is wary of the rising power of Islamist groups within the rebel movement.

A small percentage of Christians so far have taken up arms in the civil war that broadly pits minorities, in particular Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, against the Sunni Muslim majority.

Iraq sees rare mass

In Iraq, Christians celebrated their first Christmas Eve midnight mass in Baghdad since 2003, taking advantage of intensive security measures in capital.

Dressed in their best clothing, men, women and children attended prayers at a special service in western Baghdad's Church of Mar Youssef.

But on Christmas Day, a car bomb exploded near a church in Baghdad as Christians celebrated Christmas Day, killing at least 14 people, police and medics said.

Iraqi Christians attended a Christmas Eve mass at St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad [Reuters]

Father Bios Kashok, who led prayers at the Christmas Eve service, said he prayed for continued peace and security, bemoaning the departure of so many worshippers.

"I wish that our people remain steady and remain in their land because immigration is not a solution. Emptying the country is a hard decision and it is a blurring of an identity, it means the death of our existence. As Christians, our existence is a sign of peace," he said.

Festivities have been overshadowed in recent years as targeted attacks on the Christian community forced thousands to flee a country where Christians once numbered about 1.5 million. A Christmas mass service in 2010 was cancelled after Christians received threats by al-Qaeda in Iraq.

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