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Friday, December 25, 1998 Published at 12:57 GMT

World: Europe

Pope urges end to death penalty

The Pope addresses thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans

Pope John Paul II has used his Christmas Day message to urge a worldwide ban on the death penalty.

He told tens of thousands gathered in Rome that modern means of punishing and preventing crime made executions irrelevant.

BBC Correspondent Cindi John reports on the Pope's Christmas message
The Pope's "Urbi et Orbi" message - "to the city and the world" - delivered from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica, was televised live to millions of people in 45 countries.

It comes a month before a papal trip to the US, where 500 people have been executed since capital punishment resumed in 1977.

The 78-year-old head of the one-billion-strong Catholic Church contrasted the serenity of Christmas with what he described as many current problems.

Senseless violence had blurred the joy of the season for many people, he said.

He sent special greetings to Kurds and he prayed that Catholics should not become resigned to scenes of violence and hatred that they see reported daily on television and in newspapers.

"May Christmas help to strengthen and renew, throughout the world, the consensus concerning the need for urgent and adequate measures to halt the production of arms, to defend human life, to ban the death penalty," he said.

The Pope also voiced concern about the "tormented situation" in the Middle East and denounced those responsible for war crimes and genocide.

He spoke of "tragic situations, which often involve human guilt and even malice, soaked in fratricidal hate and senseless violence".

The Pope went on to wish the world a happy Christmas in 58 languages, including Hebrew and Arabic.

Midnight Mass

It was the third year running that the Pope, heeding doctors' orders to conserve his strength, has not celebrated a Christmas Day Morning Mass.

He reduced the burden of public engagements slightly in 1998 on medical advice.

David Willey in Rome reports on the Pope's Christmas message
But at Midnight Mass on Thursday at the Vatican Basilica, he said was looking forward to the start of the third Christian Millennium.

"I am already thinking of Christmas next year, when, by God's grace, I will inaugurate the great Jubilee by opening the Holy Door."

The Pope is expected to stay at his holiday home outside Rome before the scheduled visit to Mexico and St Louis in the United States between 22 and 28 January.

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