Pope's Christmas message recalls children suffering in world's conflicts, calls youth the hope of humanity

Tuesday, December 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Calling young people the hope of humanity, Pope John Paul II dedicated much of his Christmas message Tuesday to the world's children, and prayed that religion never be an excuse for intolerance and violence.

Speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to tens of thousands of people who gathered in St. Peter's Square on a chilly day beneath a brilliant sun, John Paul, in a weary voice, offered a frank revelation of how he, too, is suffering over the evils of the world.

``Day after day, I bear in my heart the tragic problems of the Holy Land; every day I think with anxiety of all those who are dying of cold and hunger,'' John Paul said in his traditional Christmas message ``Urbi et Orbi'' _ Latin for ``to the city and to the world.''

``May God's holy name never be used as a justification for hatred! Let it never be used as an excuse for intolerance and violence!''

The frail, 81-year-old pope stopped celebrating Christmas Day Mass in the basilica several years ago, making the delivery of his message his sole public appearance of the day.

``Today my thoughts go to all the children of the world: so many, too many are the children condemned from birth to suffer through no fault of their own the effects of cruel conflicts,'' John Paul said, his voice trembling.

``Let us save the children, in order to save the hope of humanity,'' the pontiff declared. This, he said, was mankind's urgent task, ``to give us back the right to hope.''

In the baby Jesus, the pope said, one could ``recognize the face of every little child who is born, of whatever race or nation: the little Palestinian and the little Israeli; the little American and the little Afghan, the child of the Hutu and the child of the Tutsi.''

John Paul made no direct reference to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or the U.S. bombings in Afghanistan.

But he prayed that God ``come where the fate of humanity is most in peril.''

John Paul, who was seated in a chair, appeared particularly tired after reading his message. After being helped to his feet, John Paul gripped his silver pastoral staff, which shook because of a chronic tremor in his left hand. He slurred his words during the blessing and slumped back into the chair when he had finished.

Hours earlier, while leading Christmas Eve midnight Mass in the basilica, the pope spoke somberly of the ``relentless news headlines'' of recent days.

The Vatican on Monday said it had taken diplomatic steps to try to head off what it called the ``arbitrarily imposed'' decision of Israel to block Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending midnight Mass in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

In his message on Tuesday, John Paul called for support for ``those who believe and work, sometimes in the face of opposition, for encounter, dialogue and cooperation between culture and religions.''

For next month, John Paul has called leaders of other religions to join in prayers for peace in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis.

After delivering his message, the pope wished Christmas joy in 60 languages.

His wish in English appeared to reflect his concerns over unbridled consumerism in the West, as well as how many have reacted to the terrorist attacks by drawing close to loved ones: ``May the Prince of Peace remind the world where its true happiness lies; and may your hearts be filled with hope and joy, for the Savior has been born for us.''