Pope John Paul II prayed at the Christmas Eve mass on Saint Peter's Square for peace in the Middle East, telling Christian communities there the Church shared their anxiety over the region's destiny.
"I think with concern of the Holy Places, and especially of the town of Bethlehem where sadly, because of the troubled political situation, the evocative rites of Christmas cannot be celebrated with their usual solemnity," the pontiff said at the midnight mass.
"Tonight I would like the Christian communities in those places to feel that the whole Church is very close to them," he added. "We share your anxiety for the destiny of the entire region of the Middle East."
At the same time, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem -- where Christ is believed to have been born 2000 years ago -- another mass was celebrated by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who is of Palestinian origin.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat attended the service in Saint Catherine's church, as he has every year since the authority assumed control of Bethlehem in 1995.
But other ceremonies in the town, where fierce Israeli-Palestinian clashes have broken out in the past 12 weeks, were sharply scaled back by authorities in solidarity with victims of the Palestinian uprising they call the Intifada.
Since the Intifada began on September 28, more than 350 people have died in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel, mostly Palestinians.
On Saint Peter's Square, John Paul II evoked his historic trip in March to the region, during which he visited the site revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus.
"With deep emotion I think back to the days of my Jubilee pilgrimage in the Holy Land," he said. "My thoughts return to the stable, where I was given the grace to pause in prayer."
"In spirit, I embrace the blessed land that saw the blossoming of imperishable joy for the world."
The pontiff said what he called "a particularly intense prayer" for peace in the region, quoting at the end from the Bible's book of Luke.
"May the Lord hear our plea! From this square, the center of the Catholic world, let the angels proclamation to the shepherds ring out once more with new strength: 'Glory to God in the highest heavens and peace on earth to those whom he loves.'"
"Our confidence cannot be shaken, nor can our wonder at what we are celebrating ever fade," the pontiff said.
The 80-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, appeared tired at the end of the church's Jubilee 2000 year of celebrations, which he is to officially close on January 6.
A heating system protected him from cold during the mass, held this year in the square in part to allow more pilgrims to attend.
But Vatican official Pieor Marini said Friday that it is also easier and more comfortable for the pontiff, who now walks with the help of a cane, to give the blessing from the more accessible square.
The ceremony was broadcast by television to at least 40 countries and could also be accessed on the Internet.
Prayers were read in different languages or dialects, including one in Swahili.
A dozen children from Australia, Congo, Guatemala, India, Italy, Mexico, his native Poland, and South Korea offered bouquets of flowers to the pontiff.
On Monday, the Vatican state secretary, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, will replace John Paul II for Christmas mass on the square.
The pontiff, who has followed doctors' advice for the past six years to reduce his efforts, will nevertheless return to give his traditional Urbi et Orbi blessing: to Rome and the world -- VATICAN CITY (AFP)
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