Pope Francis urges aid access to Syria in Christmas speech

Pope Francis: "Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering"

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Pope Francis has used his first Christmas Day address to urge access for humanitarian aid in Syria.

He told thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square in the Vatican to pray for a peaceful end to violence in Syria and other conflict zones.

The Argentine Pope also said tragic incidents involving migrants trying to reach Europe should not be repeated.

Christians around the world are celebrating Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

At the scene

As he spoke from the balcony at St Peter's, Pope Francis kept largely to his prepared script. But he did make one significant departure from the words on the paper in front of him.

It came when he reached out, on this Christmas Day, to "non-believers"; to atheists. He called on them to join with people of faith in the pursuit of peace and a better world.

"Let us all unite, with prayer or with desire - but everyone - for peace," he said.

It was perhaps another small example of this new Pope's willingness to reach beyond the confines of Catholicism as he contemplates solutions to the world's troubles. And judging by the warmth of the applause his gesture received in St Peter's Square, many of the faithful are very much with him as he takes this route.

It was the third successive year that the Syrian conflict had been a main focus of the Christmas speech, one of the addresses known as Urbi et Orbi.

'Forgotten and overlooked'

"Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fuelling hatred and vengeance," said the 77-year-old pontiff.

"Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering."

He also called for peace in Iraq and a successful outcome in talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Expanding on his concept of peace, Francis said: "True peace is not a balancing of opposing forces. It's not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and division. Peace calls for daily commitment."

The BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says the Pope also reached out to "non-believers", calling on them to join with people of faith in the pursuit of peace and a better world.

It was perhaps another small example of this new Pope's willingness to reach beyond the confines of Catholicism, our correspondent says.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd after his traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on December 26 The Pope called for a peaceful end to conflicts in the Middle East and Africa
Handout picture shows Pope Francis during his traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica He was speaking in front of thousands on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica
Swiss guards get ready prior to the start of Pope Francis Urbi et Orb message  December 25 The speech took place amid the usual pageantry, with Swiss Guards out in force

Conflicts in Africa were another focus of the Pope's address.

He called the violence in the Central African Republic "often forgotten and overlooked" in a country "torn apart by a spiral of violence and poverty".

He also urged an end to fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and for "social harmony" in South Sudan.

In the light of attacks on some Christian communities in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, Francis said: "Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted in your name."

On Tuesday evening thousands gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations.

The nearby Church of the Nativity sits on the spot where Jesus is said to have been born.

Correspondents said it was the biggest crowd to attend the event in years.

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