VATICAN CITY – Millions of Christians around the world celebrated Christmas on Tuesday as Pope Benedict XVI prepared to deliver his traditional Christmas Day blessing in which he is expected to appeal for peace in war-torn Syria.
The pontiff was to pronounce his “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and the World) message from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica at 1100 GMT, hours after thousands of Palestinians and tourists thronged the streets of Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born.
Pilgrims began flocking to the vast square in Vatican City to watch the 85-year-old pope in person, under partly cloudy skies.
During midnight mass in Bethlehem, the most senior Roman Catholic bishop in the Middle East appealed for peace in the conflict-torn region and issued a special call for efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Only justice and peace in the Holy Land can reestablish balance and stability in the region and in the world,” Patriarch Fuad Twal told a crowd packed into the St. Catherine church, which adjoins the Church of Nativity.
For Palestinians, this year’s celebration carries special significance, coming as it does after the United Nations granted them upgraded status, and the UNESCO agency designated Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site.
“From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the sufferings in the Middle East,” said Twal.
He hailed the UN upgrade, saying that this “recognition should be a decisive step towards peace and security for all.”
He urged the faithful to offer prayers for “our brothers and sisters in Syria, who are dying mercilessly… (and) the people of Egypt who are fighting for national agreement, freedom and equality.
Meanwhile as Christmas Day dawned in the Asia-Pacific region cool weather kept Australians away from beaches and a rotten egg attack marred celebrations in Indonesia.
The usual Christmas revellers did not throng to Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach, while wildfires raged in other parts of Australia as the summer heat flared.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard thanked emergency crews and others who had to work on the national holiday, paying particular tribute to soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
“To our troops abroad, we honor and admire you, and I hope your families know how grateful we are to you this time of year,” Gillard said in her annual Christmas message.
Seven Australian troops died in the conflict in 2012; 39 have perished there over the past decade.
Meanwhile in Indonesia more than 200 Muslims threw rotten eggs at Christians wanting to hold a Christmas mass near land outside Jakarta where they plan to build a church, police and a witness said.
Some 100 Christian worshippers intended to hold a mass near empty land where they hope to build a church, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) east of the capital, in a project barred by district government and community members in 2009.
Since then, worshippers from the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant have held Sunday services under scorching sun outside the property.
On Tuesday, however, local community members blocked the road near the land, local police told AFP.
During a Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, the pope called for peace in Bethlehem “and all those places where the Lord lived, ministered and suffered.”
“Let us pray at this time for the people who live and suffer there today. Let us pray that there may be peace in that land,” he said.
“Let us pray that Israelis and Palestinians may be able to live their lives in the peace of the one God and in freedom,” he added.
The pontiff prayed for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and neighboring countries, “that there may be peace there, that Christians in those lands where our faith was born may be able to continue living there, that Christians and Muslims may build up their countries side by side in God’s peace.
Meanwhile in the United States, the organization responsible for monitoring North American airspace helped with the important task of helping children track Santa Claus’s progress as he completes his whirlwind journey around the globe.
The Santa tracker set up by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a US-Canada joint operation, said that at 1000 GMT, Santa and his overworked reindeer were passing over Canada’s Vancouver, having delivered more than 6.7 billion gifts during his annual journey.
The website, www.noradsanta.org, is available in eight languages and allows children to find Santa’s location and upcoming stops on his trip.