Pope Francis has made a phone call to some Iraqis forced to flee their homes, assuring them that they were in his Christmas thoughts.

Speaking on Christmas eve, Francis told refugees at the tent camp in Ankawa, a suburb of Erbil in northern Iraq, that they were like Jesus, forced to flee because there was no place for them.

For Christians, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem barn manger, chosen because there was no room for his parents at an inn.

"You are like Jesus on Christmas night. There was no room for him either, and he had to flee to Egypt later to save himself," Francis told the Iraqis in the call arranged via satellite phone by the Italian Catholic television station TV2000.

"I embrace you all and wish for you a holy Christmas."

The Ankawa camp houses mostly Christians driven from their homes around Mosul last summer in an offensive by Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

On Monday, Francis addressed a long letter of support to Christians in the region, urging them to "persevere" despite the difficulties they face.

In it, he denounced ISIL as a "terrorist organisation of a size that was unimaginable before, committing all types of abuses... [and] striking some among you who have been brutally chased from your lands, where Christians have been present since apostolic times".

Christmas eve mass 

Francis also led Christmas eve mass in the Vatican on Wednesday calling for "tenderness" and "warmth" after a violence-plagued year as millions of Christians began marking the holiday.

The Argentine pontiff's brief homily, replete with gospel references, was broadcast live in 3D for the first time.

 Al Jazeera reports on the plight of Iraqi refugees

"Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us?" the pope asked in Saint Peter's Basilica, filled with some 5,000 worshippers.

"Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!" he said.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics also called on "the arrogant, the proud... [and] those closed off to others" to meet life "with goodness, with meekness".

In Bethlehem meanwhile, hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town's biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

In his homily Twal called for "peace in Jerusalem", where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and "equality and mutual respect" among all faiths.

Source: Agencies