Pope Francis has equated the story of Joseph and Mary to the current refugee crisis during his Christmas Eve Mass. He said the respect for migrants was an integral part of Christianity.
Today's refugees are fleeing their homes just as Joseph and Mary did in biblical times, Pope Francis said in his Christmas Eve Mass at St Peter's Basilica on Sunday.
Francis told the 10,000-strong gathering of the faithful that just like Jesus' parents in the New Testament, millions of people are today forced to leave their homelands for a better life. He expressed hope that no one will feel "there is no room for them on this Earth."
Sunday evening's gospel reading, at one of the Roman Catholic Church's holiest sites, recounted the Biblical story of how Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered for a census ordered by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.
"So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary," the pope said in his homily. "We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away but, driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones."
Francis also singled out human traffickers, describing how many migrants are "surviving the Herods of today, who, to impose their power and increase their wealth, see no problem in shedding innocent blood."
In the New Testament, Herod was the king of Judea who ordered the killing of all newborn male children near Bethlehem because he feared Jesus would one day displace him.
The 81-year-old pope, who was born of Italian immigrant stock in Argentina, has made defense of migrants a major plank of his papacy, often putting him at odds with politicians.
Over the past four years, some 14,000 people have died during the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe
Time to reflect
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics also urged the faithful to find a quiet moment to reflect on the true meaning of the festive period.
"In these hours that lead us to Christmas, I invite you to find a few moments to stop in silence and prayer before the crib, in order to truly worship the mystery of Christmas," he said.
Sunday's 90-minute Mass began with one of the most important ceremonies in Catholic worship, which saw the pope lift a cloth covering a baby Jesus figure in a symbolic celebration of his birth, while children from all over the world laid flowers by a shrine.
On Christmas Day, Francis is set to deliver at noon the traditional Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) message and blessings from the central balcony of the Vatican basilica.
Earlier this month, the pope returned from a 5-day trip to Asia, which included Myanmar and Bangladesh, where he saw for himself the plight of Rohingya Muslims. Billed as the world's fastest growing refugee crisis, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven from their homes in Rakhine state in recent months by Myanmar security forces.
mm/jm (AP, dpa, Reuters)