Pope urges end to conflicts in Christmas message

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Pope Benedict called for Israelis and Palestinians "to strive for a just and peaceful co-existence"

Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his hope for an end to conflicts around the world, in his traditional Christmas Day message from the Vatican.

In his address from St Peter's Basilica, he called on Israelis and Palestinians to co-exist in peace.

He urged China's Christians to remain hopeful in spite of limitations, and prayed for those hit by natural disasters in Latin America.

He also appealed for peace in Somalia, Darfur and Ivory Coast.

An estimated 100,000 people had gathered in the square outside St Peter's - wet from rain - to hear the Urbi et Orbi - meaning to the city (Rome) and to the world -sermon.

"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 co-existence," Benedict told the crowd.

He urged Roman Catholics in China to face with courage the limits on their freedom.

He also called for political leaders to show solidarity with Christians throughout the Middle East, saying that those living in Iraq faced persecution.

"May the comforting message of the coming of Emmanuel ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and throughout the Middle East," he said.

The Pope called for "lasting peace and authentic progress" for Somalia, Darfur and Ivory Coast as well as political and social stability in Madagascar.

He also urged greater respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan and called for reconciliation between North and South Korea.

The Pope offered consolation to those in Haiti suffering in the aftermath of January's earthquake and the recent cholera epidemic.

He also mentioned the victims of natural disasters in Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

In keeping with tradition, the Pope then delivered Christmas greetings in 65 languages.

After the sermon, Benedict was to host a Christmas lunch in the Vatican's audience hall for 350 homeless people.

Earlier, there was tight security at Mass on Christmas Eve, as the Pope walked in procession up the central nave of the basilica, followed by plain-clothed security men.

The 83-year-old pontiff stopped twice to bless babies held up by worshippers among the 10,000-strong crowd.

The Vatican had reviewed its security procedures after a woman lunged at him at the previous year's event, causing him to stumble.

Security fears have also been heightened by parcel bomb attacks on Thursday at two embassies in Rome which injured two people.