Vatican City: The pope led Christmas Eve mass in the Vatican calling for "tenderness" and "warmth" after a violence-plagued year as millions of Christians began marking the holiday.
The Argentine pontiff's brief homily was replete with Gospel references in his Christmas Eve mass, broadcast live in 3D for the first time.
"Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us?" Pope Francis asked in Saint Peter's Basilica, filled with some 5,000 worshippers.
Pope Francis kisses the unveiled baby Jesus during a Christmas Eve mass at St Peter's Basilica to mark the nativity of Jesus Christ, on December 24, 2014 at the Vatican. Pic/ AFP
"Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!" he said yesterday.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics also called on "the arrogant, the proud... (and) those closed off to others" to meet life "with goodness, with meekness."
In Bethlehem meanwhile, hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town's biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land. Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles – the colours of the Palestinian flag.
But for many faithful across the region, the festivities will be tinged with sadness following a year of bloodshed marked by a surge in the persecution of Christians that has
drawn international condemnation. "For many of you, the music of your Christmas hymns will also be accompanied by tears and sighs," Pope Francis wrote in a long letter addressed to Christians in the Middle East.
Ahead of the celebrations, the Argentine pontiff voiced concern about the growing persecution of Christians, some of whom he said had been "brutally driven out" of areas where they have lived since New Testament times.
Francis delivered a Christmas message via telephone to refugees displaced to Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region. "Dear brothers, I am close to you, very close to you in my heart," the pope was quoted as telling the refugees by Italian press agency AGI.
"The children and the elderly are in my heart," Francis also told the Iraqi refugees in the Ankawa camp.