Pope Benedict XVI in his traditional Christmas message expressed hope for peace in the Middle East and other conflict areas. The message follows controversy after earlier papal comments angered the gay community.
Pope Benedict XVI blesses children at the Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica
Referring to Jesus' birthplace, the pontiff prayed that the "divine Light of Bethlehem radiate throughout the Holy Land, where the horizon seems once again bleak for Israelis and Palestinians."
Benedict's appeal came against a Christmas Eve backdrop of militant rocket attacks into Southern Israel and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
The pontiff is likely to visit Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan in May 2009, according to recent remarks by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal.
On Thursday, Dec. 25, the spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics also mentioned how "God's saving grace" is desperately sought in Zimbabwe, where human suffering due to political violence has been exacerbated by a deadly outbreak of cholera.
Zimbabweans have been "trapped for all too long in a political crisis and social crisis which sadly keeps worsening," Benedict said speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.
Similarly seeking redemption from strife and persecution, are people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo's war-torn Kivu region, in Darfur, Sudan and in Somalia, Benedict said.
In his message, Benedict stressed what he described as the universal significance of Christmas in which God through the baby Jesus appeared on earth to save mankind.
Benedict then began repeating in 64 languages his Christmas greeting to the tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square and those following the even on television and radio.
Pope Benedict XVI waves to faithful during the "Urbi et Orbi" (to the City and to the World) message
"May the birth of the Prince of Peace remind the world where its true happiness lies; and may your hearts be filled with hope and joy, for the Savior has been born for us," he said in English.
According to the Vatican, more than 90 television networks in some 60 countries were scheduled to broadcast the greeting.
Hours earlier, Benedict ushered the Vatican's Christmas celebrations by leading traditional midnight Christmas Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
In his homily, the 81-year-old pontiff recalled Jesus' humble birth in Bethlehem and drew attention to the plight of the poor and to that of children suffering neglect and abuse.
Anger over gay comments
The pope angered gay rights activists with comments on Monday suggesting that safeguarding "human ecology" -- intended as the concept of men and women created as distinct beings by God -- is as important as "protecting tropical forests" have angered gay rights activists.
The church considers safe-sex unions sinful
On Monday, Benedict used the English-language term "gender" in a speech delivered in Italian to the Vatican Curia in which he also reiterated Catholic teaching on marriage intended as a union between men and women.
The Catholic Church considers same-sex unions sinful, and the pontiff appeared to criticize these when he noted that "what is often described with the term 'gender,' leads to man's self-emancipation from creation and the creator."
Critics noted how Benedict's remarks came against the backdrop of the Vatican's recent opposition to a proposed resolution at the United Nations seeking to decriminalize homosexuality.
"Gay people have become a real obsession" for the pope, said Aurelio Mancuso of the Italian rights group Arcigay.
Earlier this month the Vatican's chief spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the Roman Catholic Church believes homosexuality must not be considered a crime, but added that initiatives aimed at "putting all forms of sexual orientation on the same level" are wrong.