VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis offered Christmas wishes Wednesday for a better world, praying for protection for Christians under attack, battered women and trafficked children, peace in the Middle East and Africa, and dignity for refugees fleeing misery and conflict around the globe.
Francis delivered the traditional Urbi et Orbi (Latin for "to the city and to the world") speech from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to more than 70,000 cheering tourists, pilgrims, and Romans in the square below.
In his first Christmas message since being elected pontiff in March, he asked for all to share in the song of Christmas angels, "for every man or woman . . . who hopes for a better world, who cares for others," humbly.
Among places ravaged by conflict, he singled out Syria, which saw its third Christmas under civil war; South Sudan; the Central African Republic; Nigeria; and Iraq.
In Iraq on Wednesday, extremists targeted Christians in two attacks, including a bomb that exploded near a church during Christmas Mass in Baghdad. The separate bombings killed at least 37 people.
The Vatican has been trying to raise concern in the world for persecution and attacks on Christians in parts of the Mideast and Africa.
"Lord of life, protect all who are persecuted in your name," Francis said.
Adding an off-the-cuff remark, Francis said he was also inviting nonbelievers to join their desire for peace with everyone else.
The pope also prayed that God "bless the land where you chose to come into the world and grant a favorable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians."
Francis then explained his concept of peace.
"True peace is not a balancing of opposing forces," he said, reading the pages of his speech as they were ruffled by a chilly wind. "It's not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions. Peace calls for daily commitment."
Francis also spoke of the lives of everyday people, especially those struggling for a better life.
Recalling the hundreds of migrants who have drowned this year while trying to reach European shores, including many close to the Italian island of Lampedusa, Francis prayed that refugees receive hope, consolation, and assistance.
The 77-year-old pope kept to the simple style he has set for his papacy. Wearing a plain white cassock, Francis presented a sharp contrast in appearance to the pope who stood on the same balcony on Christmas exactly a year ago. Then Benedict XVI, who was soon to stun the world by retiring, read his Christmas speech while dressed in a crimson, ermine-trimmed cape. Benedict lives on the Vatican grounds, and Francis paid a holiday call on him earlier this week.
In another break with tradition, the Argentine-born Francis stuck to Italian for his Christmas greetings, forsaking a custom of wishing happy holidays in dozens of languages to the crowd below the balcony.
In the Mideast, pilgrims celebrated Christmas in the ancient Bethlehem church where tradition holds Jesus was born, as candles illuminated the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.