Pope Benedict Prays for Peace in Yule Message
Pope Benedict XVI, in his annual Christmas message to the faithful, prayed for peace in Syria and other places where armed conflict is killing thousands of civilians.
On Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI spread a hopeful message to his followers, calling for peace in many of the world's hot spots.
From Syria to northern Nigeria, the leader of the Catholic Church urged dialogue and the protection of civilians.
"In this world, there is a good soil God has prepared," the pope said. "Consequently, there is hope in the world; a hope in which we can trust, even at the most difficult times and in the most difficult situations."
Benedict spoke to a crowd of about 50,000 gathered at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
He called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
"May peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict which does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims," Benedict said. "Once again, I appeal for an end to the bloodshed, easier access for the relief of refugees and the displaced, and dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict."
Benedict also asked for dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"May peace spring up in the land where the redeemer was born, and may he grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division and embark resolutely on the path of negotiation," he said.
Regarding China, where there have been tensions this year between the Catholic Church and Chinese authorities over the oversight of church leaders there, Benedict called for expanded freedom of religion.
Addressing China's new leaders, he expressed hope that, "in fulfilling this task, they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world."
Benedict also expressed concern about violence in Mali and Nigeria, "where savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians."
And he expressed hope that the citizens of Egypt will "build societies founded on justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of every person."
The pope was silent on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, except for that generic wish for "justice" in Egypt. He might have mentioned the church bombings in Iraq, the murder of clergy in Egypt, the organized oppression of Christians in Yemen, and the report from a respected think tank that Christianity was "close to extinction" in the Middle East:
The most common threat to Christians abroad is militant Islam, it says, claiming that oppression in Muslim countries is often ignored because of a fear that criticism will be seen as "racism".
It warns that converts from Islam face being killed in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran and risk severe legal penalties in other countries across the Middle East.
The report, by the think tank Civitas, says: "It is generally accepted that many faith-based groups face discrimination or persecution to some degree.
"A far less widely grasped fact is that Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers."
It cites estimates that 200 million Christians, or 10 per cent of Christians worldwide, are "socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs."
"Exposing and combating the problem ought in my view to be political priorities across large areas of the world. That this is not the case tells us much about a questionable hierarchy of victimhood," says the author, Rupert Shortt, a journalist and visiting fellow of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.
He adds: "The blind spot displayed by governments and other influential players is causing them to squander a broader opportunity. Religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally."
The report, entitled Christianophobia, highlights a fear among oppressive regimes that Christianity is a "Western creed" which can be used to undermine them.
One wonders if Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, would be acting any differently. It's possible, but not likely. It was John Paul who opened a "dialogue" with Muslims and criticizing them for their treatment of Christians would have undermined that overture.
Still, the man who stood up to the Soviets in Poland may have found the courage to speak out. Someone better speak out soon or Christianity will be a memory in several parts of the world.