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Pope Benedict Calls for Peace in Holy Land

Pope Benedict prayed for peace in the Holy Land during his first midnight mass in Saint Peter's Basilica. Thousands crowded the church but many more stood outside.

Thousands packed Saint Peter's Basilica for Pope Benedict's first midnight mass at the Vatican. Outside the church, in the square, many more braved the cold night air and watched the ceremony on giant screens.

Pope Benedict wore gold vestments and blessed the crowd as he walked up the central aisle of the church at the start of the mass. He was joined by around 30 cardinals to celebrate the mass, which marks the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

A dozen children, some in native costume, from Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America, brought flowers up toward the central altar, placing them near a statue, depicting baby Jesus as a choir of adults and youths sang hymns.

In his homily, the pope turned his thoughts to the Holy Land. Let us pray, he said, in a special way for the birthplace of our Redeemer and for the men and women who live and suffer there.

We wish to pray for peace in the Holy Land: Look, O Lord, upon this corner of earth, your homeland, which is so very dear to you! Let your light shine upon it! Let it know peace!

And he urged the world's Catholics to be beacons of peace. He prayed for peace where there is conflict, for love where there is hatred and for light where darkness prevails.

In Saint Peter Square, a giant fir tree lit up the night sky. Earlier Saturday as children san Christmas carols, a cardinal unveiled a nativity scene with larger-than-life figures. And the pope lit a peace candle at his study window overlooking the square.

At midday on Sunday, Pope Benedict will deliver his first Christmas message and blessing to the world from the same balcony of St. Peter's where he appeared soon after being elected last April.

Pope Benedict will also say a mass on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, and two days later will baptize children. In early January, he is due to publish his first encyclical, which the Vatican said will be signed on Christmas Day.