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Europe

Church leaders ring in Christmas celebrations with annual addresses

Christmas has arrived in Europe - though largely overshadowed by transport chaos and conflicts in many parts of the world. Church leaders used the holiday as an occasion to call for peace and tolerance.

A Christmas tree is lit up before the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Germany is seeing a particularly white Christmas

Though blizzards have been to blame for several days of traffic chaos across Europe, they painted an idyllic backdrop for many who welcomed this year's white Christmas.

In Rome, where there was no snow - but heightened security due to terrorist attacks on foreign embassies the day before - Pope Benedict XVI led the world's Catholics in Christmas celebrations Friday night, at the traditional midnight mass at St. Peter's Basilica.

The ceremony took place under tight security, following parcel bomb attacks at two embassies in the Italian capital, as well as the violent intrusion by a mentally disturbed woman at the pontiff's midnight Christmas mass last year.

In his address at the Vatican City, the German-born pope prayed for God to punish the world's "oppressors."

"Lord, make your promise finally come true," he said. "Break the rods of the oppressors. Burn the tramping boots."

Pope Benedict XVI delivering the Urbi et Orbi Christmas Day message

The pope was attacked by a Swiss woman at a Christmas mass last year

"Let the time of the garments rolled in blood come to an end," added the pope, speaking exactly one year after a mentally unstable Swiss-Italian woman dragged him to the ground at the same mass. The pope emerged unscathed from the incident, which resulted in a broken leg for a French cardinal.

The spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, who is scheduled to eat Christmas dinner with some 350 of Rome's homeless, has had a troubled year, clouded by hundreds of accusations against paedophile priests around the world.

In an interview published last month, he likened the crisis to "a volcano out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything."

The 83-year-old German pope has also said he could resign if he felt he was "no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable" of leading the Catholic Church.

Earnest messages from German churches

Church leaders in a snowy Germany took a global political view in their Christmas Eve addresses to followers.

Robert Zollitsch

Zollitsch spoke out against the commercialization of Christmas

Protestant bishop Markus Droege urged asylum for refugees and attention to the growing gap between rich and poor on Friday at the Berlin Cathedral.

Catholic Archbishop Georg Sterzinsky meanwhile called for world peace, which he called the "gift of Bethlehem" during his address at Berlin's St. Hedwig's Cathedral.

"Unfortunately, weapons can still be heard in many places," Steryinsky said, adding that the arsenals of the world were too full.

In a video message released shortly after German consumers raced to do last-minute Christmas shopping, the chairman of the German Bishop's Conference, Robert Zollitsch, spoke out against the commercialization of holiday. Christmas, he said, was more that just "a celebration with a fir tree and the exchange of presents."

A Christmas market at the Gendarmenmarkt square in Berlin

In the days leading to Christmas, Germans shopped at traditional markets

He added that Christians were more than "mere spectators at an idyllic program of festivities complete with good food, gleaming lights and presents."

However, Zollitsch did stress that a giving spirit was analogous to Christmas.

The real meaning of Christmas, he said, was God's love embodied by Jesus. "And we are allowed to pass this love along," he added.

Author: David Levitz (AFP, dpa, KNA, Reuters)

Editor: Sarah Harman

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