Pope Prays for Peace in Syria, Religious Freedom in China

Pope Benedict XVI, in his annual Christmas address to the world, spoke out against the slaughter of Syrians in the war-torn Middle Eastern country, prayed for world peace and called on China's new leaders to respect religion.

The pope also asked God to "grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation," the Associated Press noted.

The 85-year-old pontiff addressed thousands of gatherers at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, and shared a Christmas message of hope and holiday greetings in 65 different languages. Reports noted that he looked weary, as less than 12 hours earlier he led a two-hour long Christmas Eve ceremony to welcome in the birth of Christ.

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The situation in Syria occupied a major role on the Pope's message to the billions of Catholics around the world, as he prayed that "peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims."

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been doing everything possible to quell the rebellion against his administration this past year, as rebels have taken up arms against what they say is a tyrannical authority that oppresses the people. Reports have put the death toll to over 40,000 people, many of them civilians, and the U.N. has been unable to broker a peace deal between the two sides so far.

Christians in Syria, who make up only about 10 percent of the majority Muslim population, have been caught in the crossfire of the conflict, and a recent report by Open Doors USA noted that they were facing a rough Christmas this year where celebrations seemed a distant notion.

"We will use the Christmas time to visit the families that have been going through pain and suffering," a pastor in Damascus said. "Christians will come together in the churches of the capital to have their Christmas services, but no decorations and nothing big," he says. "The whole city is mourning the loss of their people, family and friends this year, so people will not really celebrate."

Christians in China have also faced difficult times, with many forced to worship and hold service in underground churches, in defiance of the Communist government-controlled churches.

The Vatican has for many years expressed concerns of the treatment of its followers in China, but said that the government's new leaders, who were appointed earlier this year, have the opportunity to mend relations and ensure the religious freedom of all people.

In his Christmas address, the pope shared hopes that "they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world."

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