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Hopeful theme sounded in Bethlehem

Associated Press

BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Christian pilgrims packed Bethlehem’s Manger Square and the Vatican on Christmas Day to pray for a tranquil 2006 and remember those killed in the terrorist attacks and natural disasters that marked the waning year.

Pope Benedict XVI praised signs of hope in the Middle East, while grieving relatives gathered at beaches and mass graves in Asia to pay tribute to the tens of thousands killed when the tsunami crashed into the region’s coastlines a year ago.

In rainy Bethlehem, where a February truce brought a downturn in five years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, some 30,000 tourists visited Manger Square outside the fortress-like, fourth-century Church of the Nativity, built over the grottos that mark Jesus’ birthplace.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, struck an optimistic tone in his message at the traditional midnight Mass.

“There seems to be a new Palestinian and Israeli political reality, despite the many complications and hesitations that surround it,” Sabbah said.

Worshippers lined up to get in packed Bethlehem churches, a contrast to the sparse turnouts of previous years.

At St. Catherine’s Church, attached to the older Church of the Nativity, Andrea Mrakic, a 24-year-old Italian Embassy worker, said his prayers were for all people, “especially here, so that everyone can be in peace, happy with each other and enjoying each other.”

In the Vatican, Benedict carried on the tradition of the late Pope John Paul II of reflecting on violence and poverty in his “Urbi et Orbi” message – Latin for “to the city and to the world.”

“A united humanity will be able to confront the troubling problems of the present time: from the menace of terrorism to the humiliating poverty in which millions of human beings live,” he said.

A rainstorm drenched thousands of pilgrims in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

In London, Queen Elizabeth II devoted her annual Christmas address to natural disasters in the past year, especially the tsunami.

“This Christmas my thoughts are especially with those everywhere who are grieving the loss of loved ones during what, for so many, has been such a terrible year,” she said in her prerecorded remarks.

In Australia, thousands celebrating Christmas at Bondi Beach were subject to bag checks and increased police patrols two weeks after racial riots nearby.

The atmosphere was livelier in Brazil, where shopping malls staged a 32-hour selling frenzy, bringing in clowns, samba dancers and rock bands to entertain last-minute shoppers.

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