Pope Benedict the XVI marked the feast of Christianity's first martyr Monday, saying Christians are still persecuted for their faith in some parts of the world. He gave his traditional blessing for the faithful on the day after Christmas.
On the Feast of Saint Stephen, the Catholic Church's first martyr, Pope Benedict came to his study window on the day after Christmas to address the crowds gathered in Saint Peter's Square.
The pope said there is a special link between Christmas and the Feast of Saint Stephen, and his martyrdom should not seem out of place in the joy of Christmas.
Already at the start of Christianity, the pope said, many shed their blood for their faith. And others followed through the centuries until our time. The pope urged the faithful to have no fear to profess their religion.
"How can we not recognize that, even in these times, in various parts of the world, professing the Christian faith requires the heroism of martyrs," said Pope Benedict.
And he added that "Even where there is no persecution, living the Gospel with coherence often involves a high price to pay."
The pope did not mention any country where Christians are being persecuted. However, the Vatican has voiced concern about Iraq, where the constitution promises religious freedom for all, but Islam is the source of legislation.
The Vatican has also been pushing for greater religious freedom in China, where Catholics are only allowed to pray in carefully monitored state churches. Some still meet in underground churches, but risk heavy fines from the authorities.
The pope told the faithful, he hoped that they would maintain, over the next few days, the spiritual climate of joy and serenity of the holy Christmas. He expressed his best wishes for their holidays, and the crowd erupted in applause.