Pope bemoans Christians' plight

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday singled out Christians as the religious group that currently suffers the most persecution and denounced lack of freedom of worship as an "intolerable" threat to world security.

His message, released in advance of World Peace Day, celebrated by the church Jan. 1, reiterated his concern in recent months for the plight of Christian minorities, especially in the Middle East, and urged national authorities to end such injustice.

He singled out the "reprehensible attack" on a Baghdad cathedral during Mass in October, in which two priests and more than 50 worshipers were killed, as well as attacks on private homes in Iraq that "spread fear within the Christian community and [create] a desire on the part of many to emigrate in search of a better life."

"At present, Christians are the religious group which suffers most from persecution on account of its faith," the pontiff asserted, citing also Christian communities under threat in the Holy Land and other parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. - AP

U.S. backs native peoples' cause

WASHINGTON - President Obama said Thursday the United States would reverse course and support a U.N. declaration defending the rights of indigenous peoples. He told Native American leaders that the declaration affirms the rich cultures of native peoples worldwide.

The United States, under President George W. Bush, voted against the declaration in 2007. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand also opposed it but have since supported it.

The nonbinding declaration is intended to protect the rights of 370 million native people worldwide. It affirms their ability to maintain their institutions, cultures, and spiritual traditions, and sets standards to fight discrimination.

Timothy Hinton, vice chairman of Arizona's White Mountain Apache Tribe, hailed Obama for keeping campaign promises on Native American issues, including enactment of the Indian Health Care Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, and the resolution of disputes with farmers and royalty-holders. - AP

Australia presses search for bodies

SYDNEY, Australia - The death toll from the sinking of a flimsy boat packed with asylum-seekers rose to 30 as police divers pulled two more bodies from the sunken wreckage. With possibly scores still missing from the crash Wednesday at Australia's remote Christmas Island, officials said there was little hope of finding anyone alive.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor said Friday the bodies of a man and a boy about 11 were found near the hulk of the wooden boat on Thursday, when seas calmed enough for divers to enter the water.

"The sad reality is we are now looking at more a recovery-of-bodies operation than a search for survivors," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian radio.

The boat, carrying an estimated 100 refugees of Iraqi, Iranian, and Kurdish origin, smashed into limestone cliffs, plunging passengers into churning waves, which battered them against the rocks.

- AP