Pope condemns religious persecution in Christmas address

Vatican City: Pope Francis today roundly condemned jihadist violence and the "brutal persecution" of religious minorities in a Christmas message to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of others. Speaking to a packed crowd outside Saint Peter's Basilica, the popular Argentine pontiff also made a strong call to end violence wrought against children amid "indifference and tears."

His second traditional "urbi et orbi" message (to the city and to the world) comes at the close of a year plagued by war and violent religious fundamentalism, notably in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and most recently against school-children in Pakistan. "Truly there are so many tears this Christmas," he said in the message broadcast across the world.

Without naming the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, he said Christians in Iraq and Syria "for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict" and "together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution."

There were "too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly, from this region and the whole world." Killings and hostage-takings from the Middle East to Nigeria and elsewhere must stop, he said. Visibly moved and departing from his text, the 78-year-old head of the Roman Catholic Church noted "the children massacred by bombardments, including where the son of God was born" -- in the Holy Land -- and their "powerless silence that cries under the sword."

Denouncing "indifference", he explicitly condemned abortion, deploring the children "killed before seeing the light". "May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers."

"May he give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan last week," he added, referring to the 149 people, including 133 school-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban. In Baghdad, where an estimated 150,000 Iraqi Christians have fled jihadist violence since June, Christmas celebrations were dampened by events.

"We do not have any feelings of joy," said Rayan Dania Sabri at Baghdad's Church of the Ascension. "How can we be joyful when there are thousands still living in camps and schools in poor conditions?" Turning to trouble-spots elsewhere across the globe, the softly-spoken Francis urged Ukrainians also to "overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation". He called for peace in "the whole Middle East" and continued efforts towards "dialogue" between Israelis and Palestinians.

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