Pope supports Chinese faithful in Christmas message
Pope Benedict XVI urged loyal Catholics in China to have courage in the face of communist limits on religious freedom and conscience, in a Christmas Day message highlighting the tensions between Beijing and the Vatican.
And in Bethlehem, the largest number of pilgrims in a decade gathered to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity for prayers.
Pope Benedict used his traditional holiday speech, delivered from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica in Rome to tourists and pilgrims in the rain-soaked square, to encourage people living in the world's trouble-spots to take hope from the "comforting message" of Christmas.
Those spots range from strife-torn Afghanistan to the volatile Korean peninsula to the Holy Land where Jesus was born -- and even to China.
In recent weeks, tensions have flared anew between the Vatican and Beijing over the Chinese government's defiance of the Pope's authority to name bishops and its insistence that prelates loyal to Rome attend a gathering against their will to promote China's state-backed church.
"May the birth of the saviour strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but, persevering in fidelity to Christ and his church, may keep alive the flame of hope," Pope Benedict prayed aloud.
During the mass, Pope Benedict also spoke out about the plight of Christians in Iraq, many of whom have fled their country to escape persecution and violence, including an attack on a Baghdad basilica.
He prayed that Christmas would "ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and in the Middle East."
In Bethlehem, it was the busiest Christmas in years.
More than 100,000 pilgrims have poured into the West Bank town since Christmas Eve, twice as many as last year, Israeli military officials said, calling that the highest number of holiday visitors in a decade.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, meanwhile, championed the role of sports in building communities yesterday in her own annual Christmas message, crediting athletics with teaching valuable social skills and providing a different perspective on life.
The queen's remarks come at a controversial moment in British sporting history.
The UK government was recently criticised for plans to cut funding to a school sports program.
It partly rescinded the decision after an outcry from athletes and educators. Britain is also preparing to host the 2012 Olympics in London.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama was planning to spend Christmas at his rented oceanfront home in Kailua, Hawaii, with his family.
Several of Mr Obama's childhood friends were also in town, along with family friends from Chicago.