(Photo: REUTERS/Tony Gentile)
In his Angelus address on the Feast of St. Stephen, Pope Francis on Thursday focused on persecuted Christians around the world.
"We are close to those brothers and sisters who, like St. Stephen, are unjustly accused and subjected to violence of various kinds," Francis said on Thursday. "This happens especially where religious freedom is still not guaranteed or not fully realized."
The remarks came just a day after a Christian neighborhood market and Catholic church were bombed in Baghdad, Iraq, leaving 38 people dead. There have been growing concerns for the safety of Christians especially in the Middle East region. Notable world figures, including Britain's Prince Charles, have recently said that followers of Christ in the region are in danger of disappearing from Christianity's birth place.
"It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants. Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ," the Prince of Wales said at an Advent reception for Middle East Christians last week.
In his message to followers, Francis noted that even in countries which on paper offer protections for freedom and human rights, Christians often encounter discrimination.
Vatican Radio reported that the pope "departed from his prepared remarks to note that there are indeed a great many Christians who suffer in these ways – more even than in the time of the first Christians – and paused to lead the faithful in praying the Ave, Maria! on their behalf."
Francis stated, "In martyrdom, in fact, violence is overcome by love, death by life. The Church sees in the sacrifice of the martyrs their 'birth' into heaven. So [on this day] we celebrate the 'birth' of Stephen, which springs from the depths of the birth of Christ. Jesus turns the death of those who love Him into the dawn of new life."
Francis also delivered a homily during Christmas Midnight Mass, where he reflected on "the mystery of walking and seeing." The full text can be read on the Vatican website.
Ahead of Christmas, the pontiff also paid a visit to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, on Tuesday at the monastery Mater Ecclesia in the Vatican gardens, where the two popes greeted each other and prayed at Benedict's chapel.
"They had a private conversation and exchanged Christmas wishes," Vatican Radio noted. "Pope Francis also greeted the small staff that cares for his predecessor."