God often surprises us, says Pope in BBC broadcast

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God is faithful to his promises but often surprises us by how he fulfils them, the Pope has said in his first BBC radio broadcast.

Pope Benedict's Christmas message for the UK was broadcast as the Thought for the Day on Radio 4's Today programme.

He said he prayed for the sick and elderly and "those who are going through any form of hardship".

In his message, he recalled his recent UK visit with "great fondness" and said he was glad to greet listeners again.

"Dear friends from Scotland, England and Wales and indeed every part of the English speaking world, I want you to know that I keep all of you very much in my prayers during this holy season," he said.

It was the first time that the Pontiff has addressed a Christmas message especially for one of the countries he has visited during the year but the National Secular Society has criticised the BBC's decision to broadcast it.

Listeners heard him say: "I am glad to have the opportunity to greet you again, and indeed to greet listeners everywhere as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ."

He continued: "I pray for your families, for your children, for those who are sick, and for those who are going through any form of hardship at this time."

At the Christmas season, says Pope Benedict, our thoughts recall a moment in history when the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah whom they pictured as a great leader who would restore their freedom.

'Destroyed death'

"The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation, but not only for the people of that time and place - he was to be the saviour of all people throughout the world and throughout history," he said.

It was not a political liberation, achieved through military means, he added, but rather "Christ destroyed death for ever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the cross".

He urged people to ask Jesus Christ to expel any darkness they have in their lives and added: "Let us give thanks to God for his goodness to us, and let us joyfully proclaim to those around us the good news that God offers us freedom from whatever weighs us down; he gives us hope, he brings us life."

Negotiations between the BBC and the Vatican went on for many months to enable the recording to take place.

Thought for the Day is broadcast within the Today programme at about 0745 GMT, from Monday to Saturday.

Since 1970, it has offered approximately three minutes of personal reflection from faith leaders and believers of a variety of religious denominations.

'Bad choice'

Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham said the Pope's reception during his visit to the UK in September had influenced his decision to record the broadcast.

Crowds of supporters turned up to see the Pope at various public events during his four day-visit.

Others organised demonstrations against his stance on controversial subjects, including the ordination of women, and many protested over the sex abuse scandal, and Catholic opposition to contraception.

The UK's National Secular Society's Keith Porteous Wood said the BBC had made a mistake in inviting the Pope to deliver the message.

"I've no problem whatsoever with the message itself, which is a religious message," he said.

"But I think it's an extraordinarily bad choice for the BBC, and I think it's actually a slap in the face to these tens and hundreds of thousands of child abuse victims.

Atheist author and campaigner Richard Dawkins wrote in the Guardian that he thought the address was a "damp, faltering squib" and that the message centred on the concept of original sin.

"Ratzinger has much to confess in his own conduct, as cardinal and pope. But he is also guilty of promoting one of the most repugnant ideas ever to occur to a human mind: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22)," he wrote.

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