Pope keeps to plan after fall

December 25, 2009 12:00 am

, VATICAN CITY, Dec 25 – Pope Benedict XVI forged ahead with his Christmas programme on Friday unfazed after a woman vaulted over barricades at St Peter\’s Basilica the night before and knocked him to the floor.

Video footage showed the short-haired woman in a red sweatshirt leaping over the security barricades and grabbing the 82-year-old pope\’s white vestments as he made his way to the altar for Christmas Eve mass.

She was identified on Friday as Susanna Maiolo, 25, a dual Swiss and Italian nationality.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, who described her as "apparently unbalanced," told AFP she had been admitted to hospital for "necessary treatment".

Maiolo had tried to approach the pope on the same occasion last year but was stopped by security guards, he said.

Seeking to play down the incident, Lombardi praised Benedict\’s "great self-control and control of the situation."

"It was an assault, but it wasn\’t dangerous because she wasn\’t armed," he said, shortly before the pope was to deliver his traditional "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) address at midday (1100 GMT) in some 60 languages.

In his Christmas Eve homily, the German-born pontiff spoke out against selfishness, as Christians across the world celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.

"Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world," said the spiritual leader of the world\’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

In Bethlehem, thousands of pilgrims celebrated Christmas in the traditional birthplace of Jesus, with festivities on a scale unseen since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in 2001.

At midnight mass, the seniormost Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land called on the faithful to pray for peace in the Middle East.

"Its inhabitants are brothers who see each other as enemies," said the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fuad Twal. "This land will deserve to be called holy when she breathes freedom, justice, love, reconciliation, peace and security."

Live rock music mingled with traditional carols in Manger Square as thousands of pilgrims and Palestinians joined the festivities, providing some respite for a town living in the shadow of a huge Israeli-built wall.

"This is the place where God gave us his son, so it is very special for me to be here, for me and my whole community," said Juan Cruz, 27, from Mexico.

In the United States, a huge winter storm forced scores of churches to cancel Christmas services as blizzards and freezing rain brought treacherous holiday travel conditions for millions.

At least 19 deaths were attributed to the storm system spanning two-thirds of the nation.

"This is a holiday mess," said Chris Vaccaro of the National Weather Service. "Its effects run the gamut from severe thunderstorms in the Gulf Coast to ice in New England to really what is a raging blizzard in the lower plains."

The northern parts of the far-ranging weather system were expected to drop up to two feet (60 centimetres) of snow by Christmas Day while blizzard warnings were issued from North Dakota to Texas.

US President Barack Obama left the freeze far behind, starting a family holiday in his native Hawaii cheered by the Senate\’s adoption of his health care reforms.

Snow, ice and stormy weather also brought fresh misery to Christmas holiday travellers across Europe, causing disruption on roads, rail and air travel.

Icy temperatures blasted Britain, with temperatures in some part of Scotland sinking to minus 15 degrees Celsius (five Fahrenheit).

The Eurostar rail service linking mainland Europe and Britain, which suffered days of chaos this week when its trains were affected by snow, was running to a modified timetable.

In the Philippines, thousands displaced by an erupting volcano prepared for a White Christmas of a different kind as Mount Mayon spouteded snow-like ash and politicians bearing gifts trooped to crowded evacuation centres.

In waters off Manila, meanwhile, rescue workers searched for at least 23 people missing after a ferry smashed into a trawler Thursday.

Iraq was hit by a string of attacks Thursday that killed 27 people ahead of Christmas and the Shiite ceremony of Ashura, which commemorates the death of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

In Latin America, Venezuela\’s firebrand President Hugo Chavez told his nation to end the gift-giving "insanity" of Christmas and instead reading children stories about independence hero Simon Bolivar.

"For the love of God, let\’s halt this, let\’s put the brakes on this consumerist, capitalist insanity, that leads us to lose our spiritual values," he said.


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