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The BBC's David Willey, in Rome
"The Pope says he is thinking with great concern of the Holy land, where violence continues to stain with blood"
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Monday, 25 December, 2000, 14:05 GMT
Pope laments Mid-East violence
The Pope insisted on an open-air Mass
Braving cold, wet weather, Pope John Paul II called for peace in the Middle East during his traditional Christmas appearances at St Peter's Square in the Vatican.

I think with concern of the Holy Places... where violence continues to stain with blood the difficult path to peace

Pope John Paul II

In his Christmas day address, the Pope said he was thinking with "great concern of the Holy Land, where violence continues to stain with blood the difficult path to peace".

His intervention comes as Palestinians and Israelis mull over the latest proposal for peace from US President Bill Clinton.

Considering proposals

After five days of talks near Washington, the two sides are expected to tell Mr Clinton by Wednesday if his plan is an acceptable framework for the renewal of peace negotiations.

Israeli press reports say the US plan would cede control of a key Jerusalem site to the Palestinians - as per their demand - in exchange for Palestinian concessions on the right of refugees to return to Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak
Israel's Mr Barak needs a deal
The plan would reportedly give Palestinians control over Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary.

Jews call it the Temple Mount and it is holy to both religions.

President Clinton is said to be eager to get talks started again before he leaves office on 20 January.

And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak hopes to go into special elections in February with a deal under his belt. He is currently trailing right-wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon by a large margin in opinion polls.

Subdued Bethlehem

About 350 people - mostly Palestinians - have been killed in nearly three months of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem itself have been subdued.

Away from the traditional location of the Nativity, there was gunfire in at least three places in the Gaza Strip overnight, BBC Middle East correspondent Hilary Andersson said.

Outdoor mass

The Pope, who will be 81 next May, insisted on celebrating mass in the open air, rather than inside St Peter's Basilica, to enable more pilgrims to attend.

The Pope blesses children
Children received a blessing from the Pope
St Peter's can only hold a maximum of 8,000 people, while the square can accommodate more than 100,000.

About 40,000 people gathered on the square for the mass - fewer than expected, due to the persistent rain.

The pontiff read his homily in a clear, strong voice, and celebrated the mass from an altar covered with a canopy and protected on two sides by sheets of glass.

The Vatican estimates that about one billion people worldwide watch the mass on television.

The Pope also expressed concern about a recent wave of anti-Christian bombings in Indonesia and condemned abortion and euthanasia as contributing to a "culture of death."

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25 Dec 00 | Media reports
Christmas messages from around the world
24 Dec 00 | Middle East
Sombre Christmas in Bethlehem
24 Dec 00 | Middle East
Mid-East faces 'moment of truth'
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