Pope prays for freedom in China, peace in Syria

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ROME -- Speaking from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI called on Tuesday for religious freedom in China and peace for the "defenseless" in Syria in his annual Christmas Day message.

"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," Pope Benedict said. "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."

Wearing a short red cape lined with snow-white ermine and trimmed with gold embroidery, Pope Benedict smiled as he offered Christmas greetings in 65 languages to thousands of the faithful in St. Peter's Square. Marching bands from the Italian armed forces and the Carabinieri police played festive anthems. During Christmas Eve Mass on Monday evening, the 85-year-old pontiff had appeared tired and his voice hoarse, but on Tuesday he appeared more vivacious as he delivered the traditional message, "Urbi et Orbi," to the city and the world.

He also addressed China, where in recent weeks the Vatican has been increasingly at odds with the government over the ordination of bishops, who cannot hold office without approval from the authorities, to the dismay of the Vatican.

"May the King of Peace turn his gaze to the new leaders of the People's Republic of China for the high task which awaits them," Pope Benedict said. "I express my 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."

Aggravating tensions, the Chinese Catholic Bishops Council, a government entity, stripped Thaddeus Ma Daqin, 45, the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, of his title this month, according to Catholic websites that cited sources in the Chinese church.

The bishop had been under house arrest since he shocked Communist Party officials and his faithful by renouncing his government position during his consecration in July. In recent years, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the authority of the pope, has consecrated a number of bishops over the Vatican's objections, resulting in their excommunication.

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