Pope appeals for persecuted Christians
Francis blasts 'fairy tale' images of Christmas on St Stephen's26 December, 17:30
Francis has spoken out several times on behalf of Christian minorities in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East.
His appeal on the feast of St Stephen, Christianity's first martyr, follows Christmas Day bomb attacks on a Catholic church and a Christian neighbourhood market in Baghdad, Iraq, that killed 38 people. "We are close to those brothers and sisters who, like St.
Stephen, are unjustly accused and subjected to violence of various kinds," said Francis. "This happens especially where religious freedom is still not guaranteed or not fully realized".
The pontiff repeated the call via his Twitter account, @Pontifex.
"Before the Nativity scene, may we pray in a particular way for those suffering persecution for the faith," Francis posted.
The pope called for everyone, atheists included, to unite in working for peace in his first Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi (to the city and world) address on Wednesday.
"I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire," he said. "But all of us, for peace".
The 77-year-old pope specifically mentioned conflict in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Francis also took time to raise some smiles on Thursday, praising the many pilgrims who braved the Rome rain to attend his angelus.
"You are afraid of the rain," he said. "Well done". On Thursday the pope again talked of the need to return to the true spirit of Christmas, blasting modern "fairy tale" depictions of it. The Argentine pontiff criticised "the false image of Christmas, a fairy-tale, mushy image that does not exist in the Gospel". He said that a more challenging "authentic sense of incarnation" connects "Bethlehem and the Cross".
"Divine salvation implies the fight against sin, passing through the narrow door of the Cross," Francis added. "This is the road that Jesus clearly indicated to his disciples, as the Gospel testifies today". Francis, who has won over the faithful with his humble, simple, spontaneous style and focus on the poorest and weakest since being elected in March, spoke about returning to the real spirit of the nativity several times in the run-up to his first Christmas as pope. On Monday, for example, he called for a renewed focus on God at Christmas, rather than spending and partying. "Come and let's open our souls and may our souls be watchful in these days as we wait (for Christmas)," the pope said during Mass at Saint Martha's House, the Vatican guest house where he lives after spurning the luxury of the papal apartments. "Watch what happens in us. See whether the Lord comes or does not come. See whether there is room for the Lord or there is room for parties, for shopping, for making noise," added Francis. "Is our soul open, like the holy mother Church is open and the Virgin Mary was open? "Or is our soul closed and have we attached a very polite sign to the door that reads 'please do not disturb'?".
The pope will give another angelus address from the window of the papal apartments on Sunday.
On New Year's Eve he will preside over the celebration of the first Vespers and the traditional signing of the Te Deum for the feast of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God.
Then, on the morning of January 1, Francis will celebrate Mass and speak on the theme of the Church's 47th annual World Day of Peace, "Fraternity: the foundation and path for peace".
The cycle of the Christmas liturgies will conclude on January 6 with Mass celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, marking the baptism of Jesus, as well as a baptism of newborns in the Sistine Chapel.