BETHLEHEM, December 25 – War and economic hardship loomed over Christmas celebrations across the world on Thursday, with Pope Benedict XVI pleading for an end to "hatred and violence" in the Middle East.,
From Jesus Christ’s traditional birthplace, the ancient town of Bethlehem in the conflict-stricken West Bank, to the sun-washed beaches of Australia, Christians and non-believers alike took time off to mark the festive holiday as world leaders reflected on the grim backdrop.
"Let us pray that peace will be established (in the Middle East), that hatred and violence will cease," Pope Benedict said during his midnight mass Christmas homily at the Vatican.
In Bethlehem, thousands of Christians turned out in the largest numbers since the 2000 start of the Palestinian uprising, braving the cold to bring festive cheer to the troubled region.
Many prayed in the Church of the Nativity, at which a grotto marks the traditional site of Christ’s birth. Others milled nearby in Manger Square, where boy scout marching bands played hymns on bagpipes and drums.
The Catholic leader in the Holy Land prayed for peace in the region, just a day after more exchanges of deadly firepower between Hamas militants in Gaza and Israeli forces.
"On this night, the silence of the grotto will be even louder than the voice of the cannons and submachine guns," Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal told pilgrims at a midnight mass just metres (yards) from the grotto.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was due in her televised Christmas message to reflect on the "sombre" backdrop of economic hardship brought on by the worldwide credit crunch which has sparked recession and job losses.
"Christmas is a time for celebration, but this year it is a more sombre occasion for many," she was to say, according to advance extracts of her message, standing in front of a Christmas tree at Buckingham Palace in London.
"Some of those things which could once have been taken for granted suddenly seem less certain and naturally give rise to feelings of insecurity."
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a controversial figure for his anti-Israel stance — was to deliver an alternative Christmas message on British television to rival the queen’s address, broadcaster Channel Four said.
Ahmadinejad said that if Christ were alive today, he would oppose "bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers," according to a pre-released transcript.
US President-elect Barack Obama urged the American people in a holiday address to put their shoulder to the "wheel of history" to forge brighter days from the misery of economic crisis, and paid tribute to the thousands of US service personnel stationed overseas.
Festivities rolled on in parts of Asia.
Beijing’s Xishiku Catholic Church received so many visitors on Christmas Eve that traffic controls were needed, the China Daily reported, adding that many were non-worshippers just there for the atmosphere.
In Australia, war and the global financial crisis dominated holiday messages as thousands took to the beaches to celebrate Christmas on a sunny summer’s day.
"In the midst of our Christmas celebrations, it’s important we reflect on those in our community who are doing it tough," said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a national address.
"We think of our troops in the field, whether they be in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Solomons, Timor Leste or elsewhere."
In the Catholic Philippines millions flocked to midnight masses and feasted at home on ham, chocolate and pastries.
The military and 5,000 communist insurgents declared ceasefires on Wednesday and Thursday in the country, where more than 80 percent of people are Christian.