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Pope prays for peace after Nigeria church attacks

Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the victims of famine, floods and conflict in his Christmas message today as a string of bomb attacks targeting churches in Nigeria killed dozens.

"Let us turn our gaze anew to the grotto of Bethlehem. The Child whom we contemplate is our salvation! He has brought to the world a universal message of reconciliation and peace," he told thousands of pilgrims in the Vatican.

The Pope urged the international community to aid those suffering from hunger in the Horn of Africa, called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria and said he hoped this year's Arab revolts would aid the "common good".

He also prayed for the victims of recent flooding in Thailand and the Philippines which he said were enduring "grave hardships" and said he hoped for increased dialogue in Myanmar "in the pursuit of shared solutions."

The Pope's strongest words were against wars and in favour of reconciliation, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land but also in the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the new nation of South Sudan.

"May the Lord come to the aid of our world torn by so many conflicts which even today stain the earth with blood... May he bring an end to the violence in Syria, where so much blood has already been shed," he said.

"May he grant renewed vigour to all elements of society in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East as they strive to advance the common good," he added, following the revolts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

However in religiously divided Nigeria, at least 28 people were killed when five separate bomb attacks claimed by Islamist sect Boko Haram targeted churches during Christmas services.

The largest explosion killed at least 27 outside the capital Abuja and the aftermath of the attack degenerated into chaos when angry youths started fires and threatened to attack a nearby police station.

A bomb blast later hit outside an evangelical church hundreds of miles away in the central city of Jos, killing a policeman, according to a spokesman for the governor.

A purported spokesman for the Boko Haram group claimed responsibility for all of Sunday's attacks and vowed there were more to come.

"We are responsible for all the attacks in the past few days, including today's bombing of the church in Madalla," Abul Qaqa told AFP by phone. "We will continue to launch such attacks throughout the north in the next few days."

In a swift response, a Vatican spokesman condemned that attack as an act of "blind hatred" which sought "to arouse and feed even more hatred and confusion."

Concluding his message, the Pope voiced Christmas greetings in 65 languages including Aramaic, Icelandic and Samoan to cheers from the crowd.

"God is the Saviour: we are those who are in peril. He is the physician: we are the infirm," he told them.

"To realise this is the first step towards salvation, towards emerging from the maze in which we have been locked by our pride."

At Christmas Eve mass in Saint Peter's Basilica, the Pope had lamented the consumerism surrounding a holiday "whose bright lights hide the mystery of God's humility, which in turns 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 said.

He also rebuked "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 Eve 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".

"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.

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.

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