The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pope plea to avert conflict in Iraq

Vatican City, Dec. 25 (Reuters): Pope John Paul, in his Christmas Day message to the world, urged the world to avert a conflict in Iraq and appealed for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In his appeal, his first public reference to the crisis in Iraq, the pope said believers in all religions should build peace.

Looking frail but resplendent in gold vestments, the 82-year-old Polish pontiff said they were called on “in the Middle East, to extinguish the ominous smouldering of a conflict which, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided”. The Vatican believes that any action in Iraq must be approved by the UN.

The message of hope was echoed by Christians at church services around the world, even as the US stepped up preparations for war in Iraq and worshippers in Asia were nervous over possible fresh acts of terror by Islamic militants.

In Iraq, the country’s Christian minority put on a brave face to celebrate Christmas but there was little joy. The mood was sombre as President Saddam Hussein, in a Christmas message to Iraqis, warned the drums of a US-led war against Iraq were beating louder.

Some Iraqis said they were celebrating Christmas as an act of defiance. “We celebrate Christmas and practice our normal life despite the American threats and the embargo,” said a Baghdad restaurant owner.

In Bethlehem, traditional birthplace of Jesus, hundreds of Palestinians made their way through rain-swept streets to mass at the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, a brightly lit centre of festivities in happier days.

An Israeli army pullback to the outskirts of the Palestinian-ruled West Bank town failed to bring much joy to residents who had been confined to their homes under military curfew during a month-long reoccupation.

“It is the saddest Christmas ever for us here,” Estella Mubarak, a 60-year-old grandmother, said inside the church built on the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born. “The worst thing is we cannot afford to buy any presents for our children.”

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was but a ghost of Christmas past at Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, his empty chair a symbol of holiday gloom for Palestinians. Israel for the second year barred him from making the short trip from his battered headquarters in Ramallah.

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