VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Benedict on Tuesday paid tribute to Christians who are persecuted for faith, including Catholics who suffer because of their loyalty to the pontiff, in an apparent reference to the underground church in China.
To the Virgin Mary, "we entrust all those who are persecuted and suffer, in various ways, for paying witness to, and being in service to, the Gospel," Benedict told pilgrims as the Church marked the feast day of St. Stephen, a Jewish convert who became the first Christian martyr.
"With special spiritual closeness, I am thinking as well of those Catholics who keep their own loyalty to Peter's Seat without yielding to compromise, sometimes at the price of grave suffering," the Pope said. The mention of St. Peter represents papal authority in Rome.
"All the Church admires their example and prays so that they will have the strength to persevere, knowing that their tribulations are the source of victory, even if at the moment they can appear to be a failure," the pontiff said, speaking from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's square.
Benedict has been leading a Vatican campaign for religious liberty, with particular attention to the plight of Catholics loyal to him in China. The faithful in China are only allowed to worship in a state-sanctioned church, and Beijing views papal appointments of bishops there as an interference in its internal affairs.
Chinese bishops and priests loyal to the Vatican have been detained and sometimes imprisoned. Millions follow the pontiff and worship in secret, but members of congregations are frequently harassed.
Relations between Vietnam and the Vatican have also been strained at times.
The Vatican has also taken up the cause of Catholics in other places where open worship puts them at risk, including Saudi Arabia.
Tuesday was a holiday in Italy, and many pilgrims, tourists and Romans turned out in the square to listen to the Pope at noon and admire the towering Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in the square.