Pope Benedict XVI is to deliver his traditional Christmas message on Sunday after a a deadly explosion near a church in Nigeria marred his and other Christian leaders’ call for world peace.
During Christmas eve mass at Saint Peter’s basilica, the pontiff lamented the consumerism surrounding the holiday and prayed for relief from oppression as a year marked by dramatic uprisings against dictatorship came to a close.
Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus saw some of its largest crowds of tourists in years for the Christmas festival, bringing cheer to the troubled West Bank, while celebrations also passed without incident in Iraq.
However a bomb went off near a Catholic church outside the Nigerian capital Abuja, killing at least 15 people, in the latest attack to rock the religiously divided country, also hit by deadly Christmas attacks in 2010.
The pontiff is due to give his “urbi et orbi” (city and world) message at the Vatican at 1100 GMT, to be broadcast around the world in 65 languages.
As tens of thousands of Christians flocked to Bethlehem to commemorate Jesus’ birthday, the pontiff said the day had become a commercial celebration “whose bright lights hide the mystery of God’s humility, which in turn calls us to humility and simplicity”.
“Let us ask the Lord to help us see through the superficial glitter of this season, and to discover behind it the child in the stable in Bethlehem, so as to find true joy and true light,” the 84-year-old pope told thousands in Rome.
He also issued a scathing rebuke to “oppressors” and warmongers around the world.
“In this time of ours, in this world of ours, cause the oppressors’ rods, the cloaks rolled in blood and the footgear of battle to be burned, so that your peace may triumph in this world of ours,” he said.
Peace was also a central theme in Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal’s Christmas homily delivered in Bethlehem, where hotels and guesthouses were packed to capacity with pilgrims.
“We ask for peace, stability and security for the entire Middle East,” said Twal, the most senior Roman Catholic in the region.
In a midnight mass, he urged “the return of calm and reconciliation in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in North Africa”.
Popular uprisings in Tunis and Egypt ended decades of secular dictatorships this year.
“O Child of Bethlehem, in this New Year, we place in your hands this troubled Middle East and, above all, our youth full of legitimate aspirations, who are frustrated by the economic and political situation, and in search of a better future,” Twal said.
He welcomed Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas to the mass, and congratulating him “in his unfaltering efforts to achieve a just peace in the Middle East, a main thrust of which is the creation of a Palestinian State”.
As day broke over Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem, residents welcomed thousands of pilgrims who came to see where the Bible says Jesus was born to a couple from Nazareth.
Palestinian officials expected more than 50,000 visitors from around the world for what is the year’s biggest tourist event in the Palestinian territories, where Christmas is a national holiday.
“Hotels are full. We have no rooms left even though the number of hotel rooms has multiplied in the last three years,” Palestinian tourism minister Khulud Daibes told AFP.
Christmas Eve celebrations are mainly held in and around Manger Square, the central plaza next to the Church of the Nativity.
The church is built over the site where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and laid him in a feeding trough, or manger.
There were also Muslims among the crowds. Many veiled women brought their children to join the celebrations of the birth of Jesus, or Isa in Arabic, whom they revere as a prophet.
“I’m here today to see the celebrations like every year. We come as Christians and Muslims to see them,” said Shireen Knaan. “There is no difference between Christians and Muslims as it is the Prophet Isa’s birthday.”
Africa’s most populous country Nigeria however suffered yet another blood-drenched Christmas when a bomb went off at the St. Theresa Church in Madalla outside the capital Abuja.
A rescue worker at the scene said at least 15 people were killed in the blast which was not immediately claimed but came on the heels of a string of attacks carried out by the Islamist sect Boko Haram.
The extremist group, which is increasingly rumoured to have ties with Al Qaeda-affiliated organisations in North Africa, claimed deadly attacks in the central city of Jos on Christmas Eve 2010.
Roman Catholics, Protestants and some Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on December 25, but other Orthodox and oriental churches do not do so until January.
In London, anti-capitalist protesters camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral celebrated Christmas with the church, putting aside squabbles.
In the spirit of Christmas goodwill, clergy sang for the 200-odd protesters camped on the church’s doorstep since October, and invited them to attend midnight mass.