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Christmas celebrated

Iraqis celebrated a sombre Christmas in a Baghdad cathedral stained with dried blood, while Pope Benedict XVI urged Chinese Catholics to stay loyal despite restrictions, in an address laced with worry for the world's Christian minorities.

Yesterday's grim news seemed to highlight the Pope's concern for his flock's welfare.

In northern Nigeria, attacks on two churches by Muslim sect members claimed six lives, while bombings in central Nigeria, a region plagued by Christian-Muslim violence, killed 32 people.

Eleven people including a priest were injured by a bombing during Christmas Mass in a police chapel in the Philippines, which has the largest Catholic population in Asia. The attack took place on Jolo island, a stronghold of al Qaida linked militants.

But joy seemed to prevail in Bethlehem, the West Bank town where Jesus was born, which bustled with its biggest crowd of Christian pilgrims in years.

The suffering of Christians around the world framed much of the pontiff's traditional Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and to the world) message.

Bundled up in an ermine-trimmed crimson cape against a chilly rain, he delivered his assessment of world suffering from the central balcony of the Vatican's St Peter's Basilica.

Pope Benedict's exhortation to Catholics who have risked persecution in China highlighted a rise in tensions between Beijing and the Vatican over the Chinese government's defiance of the Pope's authority to name bishops.

The Pope has also been distressed by Chinese harassment of loyal-to-Rome bishops who did not want to promote the state-backed official Catholic church.

"May the birth of the saviour strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience," Pope Benedict said, praying aloud.

Chinese church officials did not immediately comment. A day earlier, one said the Vatican bore responsibility for restoring dialogue after it had criticised leadership changes in China's official church.

Persecution of Christians has been a pressing concern at the Vatican, especially over its dwindling flock in the Middle East. Christians make up only about 2% of the population in the Holy Land today, compared with about 15% in 1950. Earlier this month Pope Benedict denounced lack of freedom of worship as a threat to world peace.

In Iraq, Christians have faced repeated violence by militants intent on driving them out of the country.

At Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, bits of dried flesh and blood remained stuck on the ceiling, grim reminders of the October 31 attack during Mass that killed 68 people.

Black cassocks representing the two priests who perished in the al Qaida assault hung from a wall and bullet holes pocked the walls of the church, now surrounded by concrete blast barriers.

Reflecting the Pope's hope that Christian minorities can survive in their homelands, Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka told the 300 worshippers: "No matter how hard the storm blows, love will save us."

After the October siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to UN estimates.

More than 100,000 pilgrims poured into Bethlehem since Christmas Eve, twice as many as last year, Israeli military officials said, calling it the highest number of festive visitors in a decade.

Pope Benedict said he hoped Israelis and Palestinians would be inspired to "strive for a just and peaceful coexistence".

The Pope also prayed that Christmas might promote reconciliation in the tense Korean peninsula.

Snow in Europe and the US had kept many from reaching their loved ones in time for the holidays. At airports in Paris and Brussels, hundreds of travellers received their own special Christmas present - a flight out after spending Christmas Eve curled up on hard terminal floors.

A rare white Christmas in the southern US was complicating life for travellers as airlines cancelled 500 flights yesterday, including 300 of the 800 scheduled departures from Atlanta's international airport.

And Brian Korty of the National Weather Service warned those in the northern Mid-Atlantic region and north-eastern New England states to rethink travel plans today, due to a storm that could dump 5ins or more of snow on the Washington area.

"They may see nearly impossible conditions to travel in," Mr Korty said.

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