VATICAN CITY – Iraqi Christians celebrated a somber Christmas in a Baghdad cathedral stained with dried blood, while Pope Benedict XVI exhorted Chinese Catholics to stay loyal despite restrictions on them in a holiday address laced with worry for the world’s Christian minorities.
The suffering of Christians around the world framed much of the pontiff’s traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” message (Latin for “to the city and to the world”). Bundled up in an ermine-trimmed crimson cape against a chilly rain, he delivered his assessment of world suffering from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Benedict’s exhortation to Catholics who have risked persecution in China highlighted a spike in tensions between Beijing and the Vatican over the Chinese government’s defiance of the pope’s authority to name bishops. The pope has also been distressed by Chinese harassment of Rome-loyal bishops who didn’t want to promote the state-backed official Catholic Church.
“May the birth of the savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience,” Benedict said, praying aloud.
In Iraq, Christians have faced repeated violence by militants intent on driving them out of the country.
At Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, bits of dried flesh and blood remained stuck on the ceiling, grim reminders of the Oct. 31 attack during Mass that killed 68 people. Black cassocks representing the two priests who perished in the al-Qaida assault hung from a wall. Bullet holes pocked the walls of the church, now surrounded by concrete blast barriers.
Reflecting the pope’s hope that Christian minorities can survive in their homelands, Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka told the 300 worshippers: “No matter how hard the storm blows, love will save us.”
After the October siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to U.N. estimates.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan crisscrossed the country, making a Christmas visit to coalition troops at some of the main battle fronts in a show of appreciation and support in the 10th year of the war against the Taliban.
Gen. David Petraeus started his visit by traveling in a C-130 cargo plane from the capital, Kabul, to the northern province of Kunduz, telling troops with the U.S. Army’s 1-87, 10th Mountain Division that on this day, there was “no place that (he) would rather be than here” where the “focus of our effort” was.