VATICAN CITY, Dec 25, (Agencies): Pope Francis used his Christmas message on Monday to call for a negotiated two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after US President Donald Trump stoked regional tensions with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Francis spoke of the Middle East conflict and other world flashpoints in his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) address, four days after more than 120 countries backed a UN resolution urging the United States to reverse its decision on Jerusalem. “Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two states within mutually agreed and internationally recognised borders,” he said, referring to the Israelis and Palestinians.
“We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said in his address, delivered from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica to tens of thousands of people. It was the second time that the pope has spoken out publicly about Jerusalem since Trump’s decision on Dec 6. On that day, Francis called for the city’s “status quo” to be respected, lest new tensions in the Middle East further inflame world conflicts. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future independent state, whereas Israel has declared the whole city to be its “united and eternal” capital.
Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged people to see the defenceless baby Jesus in the children who suffer the most from war, migration and natural calamities caused by man today. “Today, as the winds of war are blowing in our world … Christmas invites us to focus on the sign of the child and to recognise him in the faces of little children, especially those for whom, like Jesus, ‘there is no place in the inn,’” he said. Francis, celebrating the fifth Christmas of his pontificate, said he had seen Jesus in the children he met during his recent trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, and he called for adequate protection of the dignity of minority groups in that region.
More than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya people have fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh in recent months. The pope had to tread a delicate diplomatic line during his visit, avoiding the word “Rohingya” while in Myanmar, which does not recognise them as a minority group, though he used the term when in Bangladesh. “Jesus knows well the pain of not being welcomed and how hard it is not to have a place to lay one’s head. May our hearts not be closed as they were in the homes of Bethlehem,” he said.
He also urged the world to see Jesus in the innocent children suffering from wars in Syria and Iraq and also in Yemen, complaining that its people had been “largely forgotten, with serious humanitarian implications for its people, who suffer from hunger and the spread of diseases”. He also listed conflicts affecting children in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Ukraine and Venezuela.
At his Christmas Eve Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, Francis strongly defended immigrants, comparing them to Mary and Joseph finding no place to stay in Bethlehem and saying faith demands that foreigners be welcomed. The pontiff also mentioned other global flashpoints such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan and Venezuela, after stressing that the “winds of war are blowing in our world”. “Let us pray that confrontation may be overcome on the Korean peninsula and that mutual trust may increase in the interest of the world as a whole,” the 81-year-old said.
Earlier, celebrating midnight mass in the ancient town, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, used his homily to lambast the wars that “the Herods of today fight every day to become greater, to occupy more space”. Criticising Trump’s announcement, Pizzaballa insisted “Jerusalem is a city of peace, there is not peace if someone is excluded. Jerusalem should include, not exclude,” stressing the principle that Jerusalem is a city for both peoples and the three Abrahamic faiths.
Hundreds had gathered in the cold on Bethlehem’s Manger Square to watch the annual scout parade towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus. But the square was noticeably quieter following the violence between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks. Twelve Palestinians have been killed since Trump’s declaration, including a 19-year-old who died of his wounds on Sunday nine days after he was shot during a Gaza protest. Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in moves never recognised by the international community.
Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in east Jerusalem, although the Americans deny this. Christmas decorations have meanwhile become more visible in Christian areas of Syria’s capital Damascus this year. In the central Syrian city of Homs, Christians will celebrate Christmas with great fanfare for the first time in years after the end of battles between regime and rebel forces — with processions, shows for children and even decorations among the ruins. In Iraq too, this year marks a positive turning point for the Christian community in the northern city of Mosul. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was meanwhile due to pay tribute to the cities of London and Manchester which suffered terror attacks this year.
“This Christmas, I think of London and Manchester, whose powerful identities shone through over the past 12 months in the face of appalling attacks,” the 91-year-old monarch was to say in the pre-recorded televised message. London suffered two deadly terror attacks, while 22 people — including children — were killed during an attack at Manchester Arena following a performance by US singer Ariana Grande. Meanwhile a tragic Christmas weekend in the Philippines was compounded Monday by the deaths of 20 people killed in a bus collision while travelling to mass. Dozens of people were feared killed in a fire Saturday in the southern city of Davao. Thousands were displaced by floods and landslides from a storm that also killed more than 200 others on Friday.