Pope delivers Christmas message of hope, peace

By Mariano Castillo, CNN

(CNN) — On Christmas, Pope Benedict XVI spread a hopeful message to his followers, calling for peace in many of the world’s hot spots.

From Syria to northern Nigeria, the leader of the Catholic Church urged dialogue and the protection of civilians.

“In this world, there is a good soil God has prepared,” the pope said. “Consequently, there is hope in the world; a hope in which we can trust, even at the most difficult times and in the most difficult situations.”

Benedict spoke to a crowd of about 50,000 gathered at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

He called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria, where a civil war has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

“May peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict which does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims,” Benedict said. “Once again, I appeal for an end to the bloodshed, easier access for the relief of refugees and the displaced, and dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”

Benedict also asked for dialogue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“May peace spring up in the land where the redeemer was born, and may he grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division and embark resolutely on the path of negotiation,” he said.

Regarding China, where there have been tensions this year between the Catholic Church and Chinese authorities over the oversight of church leaders there, Benedict called for expanded freedom of religion.

Addressing China’s new leaders, he expressed hope that, “in fulfilling this task, they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world.”

Benedict also expressed concern about violence in Mali and Nigeria, “where savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.”

And he expressed hope that the citizens of Egypt will “build societies founded on justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of every person.”

The pontiff added, before delivering Christmas blessings in 65 languages: “May every land become a good earth which receives and brings forth kindness and truth, justice and peace. Happy Christmas to all of you.”