Pope denounces 'monstrous evil' of world terrorism
Pope Francis issued a Christmas Day prayer yesterday that recent UN-backed peace agreements for Syria and Libya will quickly end the suffering of their people, denouncing the "monstrous evil" and atrocities they have endured and praising the countries that have taken in their refugees.
Speaking from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica, Francis issued a plenary indulgence for Catholics in hopes of spreading the church's message of mercy in a world torn by war, poverty and extremist attacks.
The sun-soaked St Peter's Square was under heavy security, as it has been since the November 13 Paris attacks by Islamic extremists that left 130 dead.
An indulgence is an ancient church tradition related to the forgiveness of sins. Francis announced it after delivering his annual Urbi Et Orbi (To the city and the world) speech listing global hotspots and his prayers for an end to human suffering.
Francis referred to the "brutal acts of terrorism" that struck the French capital this year as well as attacks in Egypt's airspace, in Beirut, Mali and Tunisia. He denounced the ongoing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine and issued consolation to Christians being persecuted for their faith in many parts of the planet.
"They are our martyrs of today," he said.
In an indirect reference to Isil, he said: "May the attention of the international community be unanimously directed to ending the atrocities which in those countries, as well as in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and sub-Saharan Africa, even now reap numerous victims, cause immense suffering and do not even spare the historical and cultural patrimony of entire peoples."
Francis said he hoped the plenary indulgence he issued for this, his Holy Year of Mercy, would encourage the faithful "to welcome God's mercy in our lives, and be merciful with our brothers to make peace grow".
"Only God's mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst," he said.
Libya has been in a state of lawlessness since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Syria has seen a five-year war that has killed over 250,000 people and forced millions to flee the country, many of them to Europe.
"We pray to the Lord that the agreement reached in the United Nations may succeed in halting as quickly as possible the clash of arms in Syria and in remedying the extremely grave humanitarian situation of its suffering people," he said.
"It is likewise urgent that the agreement on Libya be supported by all, so as to overcome the grave divisions and violence afflicting the country." Francis praised both individuals and countries that have taken in refugees fleeing "inhuman conditions," saying their generosity had helped the newcomers "build a dignified future for themselves and for their dear ones, and to be integrated in the societies which receive them".
His message of hope was echoed in London by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
She focused on what she called the light of the Christian faith in her annual Christmas message yesterday, after a year marked by militant Islamist attacks across the world.
Elizabeth (89), the head of the Church of England, quoted the Bible and spoke of millions of people lighting candles of hope. "It is true," she said, "that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: 'The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.'"
She did not make direct reference to attacks in 2015, but she reminded her audience that Christianity's unchanging message "was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another."
She added: "There's an old saying that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."
Seated in front of a Christmas tree as she delivered the latest in a long line of seasonal royal messages that date back to George V in 1932, the queen, who turns 90 in April, reflected on her reign of over 63 years.
"One of the joys of living a long life is watching one's children, then grandchildren, then great-grandchildren, help decorate the Christmas tree," she said.
"And this year my family has a new member to join the fun," she added, referring to her fifth great-grandchild, Princess Charlotte, who was born in May to her grandson Prince William and his wife Kate, pictured inset yesterday as she attended a church service with the royals.
"Gathering round the tree gives us a chance to think about the year ahead - I am looking forward to a busy 2016, though I have been warned I may have 'Happy Birthday' sung to me more than once or twice." She concluded: "There are millions of people lighting candles of hope in our world today. Christmas is a good time to be thankful for them and for all that brings light to our lives."