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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 December, 2004, 15:25 GMT
Pope delivers sombre message
Pope John Paul ll
The Pope read his whole sermon despite his ill health
The Pope has delivered his annual Christmas message to thousands of followers in Rome's St Peter's Square.

The frail pontiff, 84, used his sermon to express "grave apprehension" over the continuing conflict in Iraq.

He described violence in all its forms as a "source of untold suffering", and voiced fears about suffering in Sudan and hopes for peace in the Middle East.

As thousands sheltered from rain, the Pope spoke of "invincible confidence" about eventual peace in the Holy Land.

"I think of Africa, of the tragedy of Darfur in Sudan, of the Ivory Coast and of the Great Lakes Region" he said in his Urbi et Orbi address.

Let there be an end to the numerous situations of unrest which risk degenerating into open conflict
Pope John Paul ll
"With great apprehension I follow the situation in Iraq.

"And how can I fail to look with anxious concern, but also with invincible confidence, toward that Land of which You are a son," he added, referring to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Pope concluded: "Let there be an end to the numerous situations of unrest which risk degenerating into open conflict.

"Let there arise a firm will to seek peaceful solutions, respectful of the legitimate aspirations of individuals and peoples."

Big effort

Overnight the Pope officiated at midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica in the city, and called for "peaceful coexistence" in the Middle East.

He spoke as church leaders called for peace at services in Bethlehem.

Television pictures of both Papal ceremonies were relayed by satellite to over 70 countries - more than at any previous Christmas.

St Peter's Basilica
St Peter's Basilica was packed for the Pope's midnight Mass
At Mass, the pontiff was wheeled into the huge Basilica on a portable throne and he delivered a short homily in Italian.

Although his speech is seriously affected by Parkinson's disease, the Pope read his whole sermon, despite being occasionally short of breath.

Often, he just reads the opening words and gets an aide to read his speeches.

The BBC's David Willey said the Pope was making a big effort to keep going, and shows a very strong determination to remain the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Palestinian leaders gathered alongside church leaders.

Palestinian presidential favourite Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Bethlehem as PLO chairman accompanied by the interim chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Rawhi Fattuh.

The pair were the most senior Palestinians allowed to attend Christmas services in Bethlehem for three years.

Israel barred former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November, because of alleged terror links.

Watch the Pope making his speech

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