POPE Francis used his first Christmas Day address as leader of the Catholic Church to urge for better access to humanitarian aid in Syria.
The thousands of pilgrims who gathered in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican today were also asked to pray for a peaceful end to the violence in the war-torn nation and other conflict zones around the world.
In a surprising gesture, the Pope also called on atheists to unite with believers of all religions and work towards “a homemade peace” that can spread across the world.
Speaking to about 70,000 people from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, the same spot where he emerged before the world as pope when he was elected in March, Francis also made another appeal for the environment to be saved from “human greed and rapacity”.
The leader of the 1.2 billion-member church wove his first “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and world) message around the theme of peace. He said: “Peace is a daily commitment. It is a homemade peace,”
He added that people of other religions were also praying for peace, and in a departure from his prepared text urged atheists to join forces with believers.
Drawing sustained applause from the crowds, he said: “I invite even non-believers to desire peace. [Join us] with your desire, a desire that widens the heart. Let us all unite, either with prayer or with desire, but everyone, for peace,” Francis’s reaching out to atheists and people of other religions is in marked contrast to the attitude of former Pope Benedict, who sometimes left non-Catholics feeling that he saw them as second-class believers.
He called for “social harmony in South Sudan, where current tensions have already caused numerous victims and are threatening peaceful coexistence in that young state”. Thousands are believed to have died in violence divided along ethnic lines in the country, which seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war.
Pilgrims came from all over the world for Christmas at the Vatican, saying Francis was a breath of fresh air. “[He] is bringing a new era into the Church, a Church that is focusing much more on the poor and that is more austere, more lively,” said Dolores Di Benedetto, who came from the Pope’s homeland, Argentina, to attend Christmas Eve Mass.
Italian Giacchino Sabello said he wanted to get a first-hand look at the new pope: “I thought it would be very nice to hear the words of this pope close up and to see how the people are overwhelmed by him.”
In his speech, Francis asked God to “look upon the many children who are kidnapped, wounded and killed in armed conflicts, and all those who are robbed of their childhood and forced to become soldiers”.
He also called for a “dignified life” for migrants.