VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI wished Christmas peace to the world Tuesday, decrying the slaughter of the “defenseless” in Syria and urging Israelis and Palestinians to find the courage to negotiate.

Delivering the Vatican’s traditional Christmas day message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just and respectful societies.

Benedict prayed that God “grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation.”

He also prayed that China’s new leaders respect religion, a reference to persecution Chinese Roman Catholics have at times endured under communism.

As the 85-year-old pontiff, bundled up in an ermine-trimmed red cape, gingerly stepped foot on the balcony, the pilgrims, tourists and Romans below backing St. Peter’s Square erupted in cheers.

Less than 12 hours earlier, Benedict had led a two-hour long Christmas Eve ceremony in the basilica. He sounded hoarse and looked weary as he read his Christmas message and then holiday greetings in 65 languages.

In his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the City and to the World) speech, which traditionally reviews world events and global challenges, Benedict prayed that “peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims.”

He called for easier access to help refugees and for “dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”

The Pope offered encouragement to countries after the Arab spring of democracy protests. He had a special word for Egypt, “blessed by the childhood of Jesus.”

Without citing the tumultuous politics and clashes in the region, he urged the North African region to build societies “founded on justice and respect for the dignity of every person.”

Benedict prayed for the return of peace in Mali and harmony in Nigeria, where, he recalled “savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.” He also recalled the problems of refugees from fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and decried brutal attacks hitting places of worship in Kenya.

The Vatican for decades has been worried about the well-being of its flock in China, who are loyal to the pope in defiance of the communist’s government support of an officially sponsored church, and relations between Beijing and the Holy See are often tense.

Speaking about China’s newly installed regime leaders, Benedict expressed hope that “they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other, 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.”

Acknowledging Latin America’s predominant Christian population, he urged government leaders to carry out commitments to development and to fighting organized crime.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.