Pope Francis condemned the “brutal persecution” of minorities by Islamic State insurgents in his Christmas message on Thursday and urged people not to be indifferent to the suffering of so many around the world.
Christmas is one of the holiest days for Christians, who on Thursday celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Tens of thousands of people turned out on St. Peter's Square to hear the Argentine pope deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message, marking the second Christmas since his election last year.
The pope appealed for the end of many of the major conflicts and crises going on in the world, urging peace in places like Ukraine, Nigeria and the Central African Republic and condemning last week's Taliban attack that killed more than 130 students in Pakistan.
'So many tears'
Calling also for an end to violence against "vast numbers of children," and noting last week's deadly attack in Pakistan, he said: "Truly there are so many tears this Christmas."
On a day that brings joy to little ones in much of the world, Francis expressed anguish for children who are victims of violence, those who are trafficked or those forced to be soldiers.
The pope also offered blessings for the victims of Ebola, particularly the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as well as for those providing care.
However, he reserved his toughest words to defend the victims of Islamic State fighters who have killed or displaced Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and others in Syria and Iraq who do not share the group's ideologies.
“I ask him, the Savior of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution,” he said.
“May Christmas bring them hope, as indeed also to the many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, children, adults and elderly, from this region and from the whole world,” he said.
'Turn rejection into hospitality'
The 78-year-old pope spoke from the same balcony of St. Peter's Basilica where he first appeared as pontiff on the night of his election on March 13, 2013.
“May indifference be changed into closeness and rejection into hospitality, so that all who now are suffering may receive the necessary humanitarian help to overcome the rigors of winter, return to their countries and live with dignity,” he said, speaking in Italian.
On Christmas eve, Francis made a surprise telephone call to comfort Christian refugees in a camp in Ankawa, Iraq. “You are like Jesus on Christmas night. There was no room for him either,” he told them.
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Thursday, Christians gathered at the Church of the Nativity for services at the site where they believe Jesus was born.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Fouad Twal led morning prayers attended by hundreds of people.
Busy year ahead
The pope has a busy year ahead of him, with trips planned to Asia, Africa, Latin American and the United States.
In mid-January, he will give his annual foreign policy address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See before boarding a plane for a weeklong trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
Another key project for 2015 is the reform of the Curia, the Vatican's central administration. In Christmas greetings on Monday to the Vatican's top administrators, Pope Francis delivered a stinging critique of Vatican bureaucracy.
On Christmas Eve, Francis called on the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to remember that God's message of peace "is stronger than darkness and corruption."
Thousands had gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica Wednesday night to hear the pope lead a solemn Christmas Eve Mass. He urged Christians to allow God to love them, emphasizing just how much the world needs tenderness today.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.