Pontiff urges 'peaceful coexistence' within agreed borders

In Christmas address, Pope says only two-state solution will bring Mideast peace

Francis prays for peace in Jerusalem; highlights the plight of children scarred by the globe’s conflicts, and urges Catholics not to ignore migrants

Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi (Latin for ' to the city and to the world' ) Christmas' day blessing from the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Monday, December 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi (Latin for ' to the city and to the world' ) Christmas' day blessing from the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Monday, December 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

VATICAN CITY (AFP)  — Pope Francis on Monday called for peace in Jerusalem in his traditional Christmas address, saying that only a two-state solution could lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The pope also highlighted the plight of children scarred by conflict around the globe, after urging the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics not to ignore migrants.

Addressing tens of thousands of worshipers gathered at the Vatican to hear the pontiff’s fifth “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and The World) message, Francis called for “peace for Jerusalem and for all the Holy Land.”

“We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

“Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two states within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders.”

The pontiff’s plea came as fresh tensions simmered in the West Bank following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Following Trump’s lead, Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales said Sunday his country would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Trump’s announcement on December 6 unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in Bethlehem in the West Bank where Christians marked the birth of Jesus at a midnight mass.

A Palestinian protester pushes a burning tire during a demonstration in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 22, 2017. (Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

“May the Lord also sustain the efforts of all those in the international community inspired by good will to help that afflicted land to find, despite grave obstacles, the harmony, justice and security that it has long awaited,” the pope said.

In his December 6 declaration on Jerusalem, Trump stressed that the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city would still have to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians. His speech, welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli leaders across most of the political spectrum, infuriated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and regional leaders because it was perceived to be prejudging the fate of the disputed holy city. At the UN on Thursday, a resolution rejecting Trump’s move was approved by 128 votes to 9; the resolution had been vetoed by the US in the Security Council two days earlier.

Abbas has encouraged a series of “days of rage” in the territories since Trump’s declaration. The Islamist terror group Hamas, which rules Gaza and seeks to destroy Israel, has been demanding a violent new intifada.

The pontiff also mentioned other global flashpoints such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan and Venezuela, after stressing that the “winds of war are blowing in our world.”

“Let us pray that confrontation may be overcome on the Korean peninsula and that mutual trust may increase in the interest of the world as a whole,” the 81-year-old said.

Fewer tourists in Bethlehem

Earlier, celebrating midnight mass in the ancient town, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, used his homily to lambast the wars that “the Herods of today fight every day to become greater, to occupy more space.”

Criticizing Trump’s announcement for the second time in a week, Pizzaballa insisted “Jerusalem is a city of peace, there is not peace if someone is excluded. Jerusalem should include, not exclude,” stressing the principle that Jerusalem is a city for both peoples and the three Abrahamic faiths.

Hundreds had gathered in the cold on Bethlehem’s Manger Square to watch the annual scout parade toward the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa arrives to the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

But the square was noticeably quieter following the violence between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks. The Christian community also canceled all non-religious events and festivities.

Trump’s declaration departed from decades of US policy that said the fate of Jerusalem should be decided through negotiations.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and sees the whole of Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

First Christmas in Homs in years

Christmas decorations have meanwhile become more visible in Christian areas of Syria’s capital Damascus this year.

In the central Syrian city of Homs, Christians will celebrate Christmas with great fanfare for the first time in years after the end of battles between regime and rebel forces — with processions, shows for children and even decorations among the ruins.

In Iraq too, this year marks a positive turning point for the Christian community in the northern city of Mosul.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was meanwhile due to pay tribute to the cities of London and Manchester which suffered terror attacks this year.

“This Christmas, I think of London and Manchester, whose powerful identities shone through over the past 12 months in the face of appalling attacks,” the 91-year-old monarch was to say in the pre-recorded televized message.

London suffered two deadly terror attacks, while 22 people — including children — were killed during an attack at Manchester Arena following a performance by US singer Ariana Grande.

Meanwhile a tragic Christmas weekend in the Philippines was compounded Monday by the deaths of 20 people killed in a bus collision while travelling to mass.

Dozens of people were feared killed in a fire Saturday in the southern city of Davao. Thousands were displaced by floods and landslides from a storm that also killed more than 200 others on Friday.

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