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Holiday hope amid conflicts

From Baghdad to Bethlehem, the faithful saw positive signs.

Shiite tribal leaders attend Christmas Mass at an Assyrian Orthodox church in Baghdad. The church, which is next to a Shiite mosque, hosted Muslim neighbors for the Mass as a gesture of friendship.
Shiite tribal leaders attend Christmas Mass at an Assyrian Orthodox church in Baghdad. The church, which is next to a Shiite mosque, hosted Muslim neighbors for the Mass as a gesture of friendship.Read moreKHALID MOHAMMED / Associated Press

ROME - As the faithful marked Christmas Day, political and religious leaders called for peace and reconciliation amid flickers of hope in places long plagued by conflict.

In Iraq, Christians made their way past checkpoints yesterday to fill Baghdad churches in numbers unthinkable a year ago. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where tradition says Jesus was born, Christians celebrated in an atmosphere of hope raised by the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

For them, and for all those in the "tortured regions" of the world, Pope Benedict XVI prayed that political leaders would find "the wisdom and courage to seek and find humane, just and lasting solutions."

Benedict, delivering his Christmas Day address from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, urged the crowd to rejoice over the celebration of Christ's birth, which he hoped would bring consolation to all people "who live in the darkness of poverty, injustice and war."

In violence-ridden Baghdad, venturing out in large numbers late at night is still unthinkable, so the Iraqi capital's Christians celebrated Midnight Mass in midafternoon on Christmas Eve.

Yesterday, about 2,000 went out to the Mar Eliya Church in the east of Baghdad, where Iraq's Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Catholic Church, celebrated Mass. He told the congregation that Iraq is "a bouquet of flowers of different colors, each color represents a religion or ethnicity, but all of them have the same scent."

He congratulated Muslims for their Eid al-Adha holiday, falling near Christmas, and Muslim clerics - both Sunni and Shiite - attended the service in a sign of unity.

"May Iraq be safe every year, and may our Christian brothers be safe every year," Shiite cleric Hadi al-Jazail told AP Television News outside the church. "We came to celebrate with them and to reassure them."

Christian pilgrims in Bethlehem filled the ancient Church of the Nativity, waiting in line to see the grotto that marks Jesus' traditional birthplace.

The large numbers and the cacophony of languages were evidence that more visitors were there this year than in the last several years.

The outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against Israel in late 2000 and the fighting that followed had clouded Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem for years, battering the tourism industry that is the city's lifeline.

Science teacher Kiel Tilley, 23, of Charlevoix, Mich., said the relaunch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks reassured him before his trip to Bethlehem, saying, "The peace process made me feel safer."

His time there, he said, was "very powerful and meaningful to me. . . . It's very moving to visit a place which I always read about in the Bible."

In Afghanistan, British soldiers in Helmand province found a little joy far from home at a meal where they wore red Santa hats and opened gifts. U.S. service members went to early Christmas Mass at a base in Kabul.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II spoke to the nations of the Commonwealth in a message on television and the Internet, urging people to think of the needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged living on society's edge.

At Canterbury Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion, urged his flock to protect the environment, saying "human greed" threatened to distort Earth's fragile balance.