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Pope Francis Prays For Peace In Christmas Address

Pope Francis Delivers Christmas Message
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WATCH: Pope Francis Delivers His First Christmas Message As Pope

Pope Francis has called for access to humanitarian aid in Syria and "social harmony" in South Sudan in his first Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" ("To the City and to the World") address.

The leader of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church also pleaded for divine aid to rescue child soldiers "robbed of their childhood" and for peace in the conflict-torn Central African Republic, which he said was "often forgotten and overlooked."

Francis, who spoke on December 25 from the central balcony of the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica to some 70,000 cheering tourists, pilgrims, and Romans in the square below, wished everyone a Merry Christmas:

Francis said he was joining all those hoping "for a better world."

Among the places ravaged by conflict, Francis singled out Syria, which marked its third Christmas since a civil war erupted there in 2011, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Iraq.

"Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fuelling hatred and vengeance," the 77-year-old pope said.

The conflict in Syria is estimated to have killed more than 126,000 people since it started in 2011, and the violence there has unsettled the entire Middle East.

In South Sudan, thousands are believed to have died in violence divided along ethnic lines between the Nuer and Dinka tribes in the country, which seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war.

Francis also prayed that refugees receive hope, consolation and assistance, recalling the hundreds of migrants who drowned trying to reach European shores this year.

Francis, who is marking his first Christmas as leader of the Catholic Church, celebrated his first Christmas Eve mass in the Vatican on December 24.

Francis is riding a wave of popularity and influence after a year of shaking up the papacy with his humble style, sense of humor, and common touch.

Elsewhere on December 24, thousands gathered in Bethlehem's Manger Square for Christmas Eve celebrations, in what was reportedly the biggest crowd to attend the event in years.

Obama Praises Troops

Meanwhile, in the United States, President Barack Obama used his holiday address to praise the "service and sacrifice" of U.S. troops and military families.

"Today, we want all of our troops to know that you're in our thoughts and prayers this holiday season," he said. "And here's the good news: For many of our troops and newest veterans, this might be the first time in years that they've been with their families on Christmas. In fact, with the Iraq war over and the transition in Afghanistan, fewer of our men and women in uniform are deployed in harm's way than at any time in the last decade."

The President and First Lady Michelle Obama recorded the greeting at the White House before departing on December 27 for a two-week vacation in Hawaii.

In her traditional Christmas speech to the nation, Britain's Queen Elizabeth said the holiday season was often a time for thoughtful reflection.

"With so many distractions it is easy to forget to pause and take stock, be it though contemplation, prayer or even keeping a diary," she said. "Many have found the practice of quiet personal reflection surprisingly rewarding, even discovering greater spiritual depth to their lives."

The queen added that her jubilee year of 2013 had given her ample food for thought.

"I myself had cause to reflect this year at Westminster Abbey, on my own pledge of service made in that great church on Coronation day sixty years earlier," she said. "The anniversary reminded me of the remarkable changes that have occurred since the Coronation. Many of them for the better. And of the things that have remained constant, such as the importance of family, friendship and good neighborliness."

Elizabeth also made reference to the birth of her grandson, George, the eventual heir to the throne.

"As so many of you will know, the arrival of a baby gives everyone the chance to contemplate the future with renewed happiness and hope," she said.

In its traditional alternative message to the Queen's speech, Britain's Channel 4 television station aired a Christmas Day address from U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who said that the mass surveillance revealed by his disclosures must be stopped.

The message was recorded in Russia, where Snowden was granted temporary asylum.

"A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all," Snowden said.

"Privacy matters; privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be," he added.

The former U.S. National Security Agency contractor sent shockwaves around the world in 2013 by revealing the extent of Washington's electronic eavesdropping.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters, AP
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