Pope calls for end to Gaza war as world celebrates ChristmasMon, 25 Dec 2023 17:21:57 GMT

People donned Santa caps on beaches, ski slopes and streets around the globe on Monday to celebrate Christmas, as Pope Francis called for an end to the wars in Gaza and Ukraine that this year have cast a shadow over one of the world’s favourite holidays.Red and white Santa outfits appeared on surfers from Australia to Florida, on cyclists in the smog-filled streets of New Delhi and intrepid souls braving chilly Channel waters for a holiday dip near Britain’s Dover.In his annual Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” mass at the Vatican, Pope Francis called for an end “to every war, to the very mindset of war, an aimless voyage, a defeat without victors, an inexcusable folly”.May peace “come in Israel and Palestine, where war is devastating the lives of those peoples”, he said.”I reiterate my urgent appeal for the liberation of those still being held hostage.”I plead for an end to the military operations with their appalling harvest of innocent civilian victims, and call for a solution to the desperate humanitarian situation by an opening to the provision of humanitarian aid!”I implore peace for Ukraine. Let us renew our spiritual and human closeness to its embattled people,” he said, also calling for the resolution of conflicts simmering in the Middle East, Africa and the Caucasus.The Gaza war made for a sombre Christmas in Bethlehem, the biblical city in the occupied West Bank where Christians believe Jesus Christ was laid in a manger after being born more than 2,000 years ago.The town did away with its giant Christmas tree, marching bands and flamboyant nativity scene that normally draw tourists, settling for just a few festive lights.In the centre of town, a huge Palestinian flag had been unfolded with a banner declaring that “The bells of Bethlehem ring for a ceasefire in Gaza”.”A lot of people are dying for this land,” said Nicole Najjar, an 18-year-old student.”It’s really hard to celebrate while our people are dying.”Inside Gaza, the horrid conditions were driving “rising desperation due to acute hunger”, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday.The Gaza war started after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 left around 1,140 people dead in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on the latest official Israeli figures.The Palestinian militants also abducted around 250 people, 129 of whom Israel says remain in Gaza.Israel retaliated with a sustained bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza that has killed more than 20,400 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry.- New Christmas Day -Ukraine, invaded by Russia nearly two years ago, this year is celebrating Christmas on December 25 for the first time, jettisoning the traditional Orthodox date of January 7, which is feted in Russia.”We believe that we really should celebrate Christmas with the whole world, far away, far away from Moscow. For me that’s the new message now,” said one smiling parishioner in Odesa, Olena, whose son is a medic on the front line.The date change — moving away from the Julian calendar favoured by the Orthodox Church — is part of numerous moves since the invasion to remove traces of the Russian and Soviet empires.The Ukrainian military said that it had shot down 28 of the 31 drones that Russia launched on Christmas Day at its neighbour, with no casualties reported.- Living Christmas tree -Britain’s King Charles III echoed the pope’s calls for peace in his first Christmas address since being formally crowned monarch in May. Acknowledging the “increasingly tragic conflict around the world”, Charles said he prays “that we can also do all in our power to protect each other”. In another first, Charles, a long-term environmental campaigner, delivered the message standing next to a living rather than cut Christmas tree. “To care for this creation is a responsibility owned by people of all faiths and of none,” Charles said in the pre-recorded message broadcast on British television at 1500 GMT. – Surfing Santas -In countries not afflicted by war, festive revellers opened presents and donned the red and white Santa hats for a shot of holiday cheer.In Sydney, Australia, residents and tourists headed to the beach to enjoy the heat of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.In Florida, thousands descended on Cocoa Beach for the annual “Surfing Santas” celebration that raises funds for a charity helping cancer patients travel for treatment and the local surf museum.In Sri Lanka, the president granted an amnesty to more than 1,000 convicts across the country to mark Christmas, prison officials said.- Prayers in Turkey -In southern Turkey, much of which was devastated by an earthquake in February, faithful prayed for new beginnings.”It’s important for us to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But it’s a very sad Christmas,” said Vehbi Tadrasgil, a 55-year-old who lost his wife and two of his three children in the quake that killed at least 50,000 people in Turkey and more than 5,000 in neighbouring Syria.”I hope that their souls are here, I am certain that our prayers rise to them,” he said in front of the ruins of a church in Antakya.Twenty kilometres (12 miles) away in Samandag, a generator powered the lights on a tree in front of the Saint-Ilyas church, which survived.”After the earthquake, our community — 400 families — was annihilated. With this Christmas, we want to wish everyone rebirth, love, joy and peace. We must move forward, rebuild a new life,” said Father Yumurta.”They say that with the birth of the child Jesus, a new life begins, a new beginning. For us too, here, it will be a new beginning,” he said.burs/giv/imm