Church Leaders Call for Peace on Holiday

From soldiers who donned red Santa hats in Afghanistan to devoted worshippers visiting Bethlehem, Christians around the world celebrated Christmas with the sobering thoughts of peace.
( [email protected] ) Dec 26, 2006 02:05 PM EST

LONDON - From soldiers who donned red Santa hats in Afghanistan to devoted worshippers visiting Bethlehem, Christians around the world celebrated Christmas with the sobering thoughts of peace and tolerance even as open war flared in Somalia.

Pope Benedict XVI used his Christmas Day address at the Vatican to call for a peaceful resolution of conflicts worldwide and appealed for greater caring of the poor, the exploited and all who suffer.

Speaking from a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, the pontiff called for peace in the Middle East, noting in particular the long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

"I place in the hands of the divine Child of Bethlehem the indications of a resumption of dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which we have witnessed in recent days, and the hope of further encouraging developments," Benedict said in his annual address.

At the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, pews were packed with hundreds of worshippers, but foreign visitors critical to the town's economy were largely absent, deterred by recent Palestinian infighting and the conflict with Israel.

Spirits were high, however, among the few foreign pilgrims who made their way to Manger Square to celebrate Christmas in the West Bank town.

"The experience was incredible," said Nick Parker, 24, of Goodland, Kan., who was making his first visit. "I could feel the true spirit of Christmas here in Bethlehem."

The theme of Middle East peace resonated with others. Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, fresh from a visit to the Holy Land, said in his annual address as spiritual leader of the world's Anglican Communion that the world must not turn its back on Israelis or Palestinians.

Queen Elizabeth II, in her annual Christmas broadcast, called for religious tolerance and mutual respect between the young and old in a fast-changing world.

"It is very easy to concentrate on the differences between the religious faiths and to forget what they have in common — people of different faiths are bound together by the need to help the younger generation to become considerate and active citizens," the monarch said.

In Southeast Asia, Christians in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, ignored terror warnings and flocked to heavily guarded churches.

Foreign troops in Afghanistan woke up to a white Christmas and snowball fights. Soldiers wearing red Santa hats and even a couple dressed as elves walked around Camp Eggers, the main U.S. base in Kabul, the capital.

Shoppers packed malls awash with tinsel, plastic pine trees and special promotions in mostly Buddhist Japan and predominantly Hindu India, reflecting the spread of the season's commercial appeal.

For many of those celebrating the holidays in Sri Lanka there was no cake this year. The price of eggs and butter has risen sixfold following the resumption of a civil war that has led to spiraling inflation on the island state just off India's southern tip.

In China, where the government allows worship only in churches, mosques and temples run by state-monitored religious groups, the English-language China Daily ran a front-page photo of a Mass in Shanghai and published several comments urging tolerance — in response to recent calls for Chinese to resist imported holidays.

"Our national culture will not fade only because people are celebrating foreign holidays," one said.

People in Australia's drought-affected southeast danced in the streets as summer rains drenched wildfires that had burned out of control for three weeks, enabling around 800 volunteer firefighters to go home to their families for Christmas.