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Pope Benedict gives Christmas message after assault

25 December 09 16:46 GMT

Pope Benedict XVI has delivered his traditional Christmas message at the Vatican, hours after a woman vaulted a barrier and knocked him to the ground.

The Pope spoke in a firm voice in front of thousands of pilgrims, appearing undaunted by the earlier incident.

The 82-year-old pontiff was unhurt in the melee on Thursday night, but an elderly French cardinal broke his hip.

The Vatican said the 25-year-old woman involved was mentally unstable and had been taken to hospital.

Vatican officials said she had attempted to get to the Pope at the same event last year.

They named her as Susanna Maiolo and said she held dual Swiss and Italian nationality.

The assault did not prevent the pontiff from continuing with his celebration of Christmas Eve Mass at St Peter's Basilica.

But French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, who was standing nearby when the assailant lunged, fell and broke his hip.

The BBC's David Willey, in Rome, says the Vatican has tried its best to play down the incident.

Our correspondent says the pontiff has to interact with the congregation and many Catholics would be angry if he was only ever glimpsed from behind a screen.

Security review

On Friday, as he emerged on to the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square, some observers said the Pope seemed unsteady on his feet, but he did not waver.

The German-born pontiff made no mention of the previous evening's incident during his Christmas Day message and prayers.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Pope had not been in any danger as the woman was not armed, but the Associated Press news agency quoted him later as saying security would be reviewed.

French Cardinal Paul Poupard, who was with the pontiff at the time of the incident, told RTL radio it was "definitely a threat to the pope".

"With hindsight, you would say greater vigilance was needed, so those in charge of security should not let their guard drop even for a second," he said.

In his sermon to the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, the Pope focused on the needy and praised the work of the Church in places like the Philippines, Korea and Sri Lanka.

He said there should be an "attitude of acceptance and welcome," for "all those who migrate from their homelands and are driven away by hunger, intolerance or environmental degradation".

Protection breaches

He also deplored the continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and spoke of the problems facing people in Madagascar, Guinea, Niger and Honduras.

"Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world," he said.

And he voiced thinly-veiled concerns over abortion, urging followers to "respect the weakest people, starting with those who are as yet unborn".

Benedict then wished pilgrims a happy Christmas in 65 languages - drawing delighted cheers from the crowd.

The Pope is protected by a combination of Swiss Guards, Vatican police and Italian police, but there have been previous security breaches at the Vatican.

In 2007, a mentally unstable German man jumped a security barrier and grabbed the back of the pontiff's open car in St Peter's Square before security guards caught him.

In 1981, Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca shot and seriously wounded Pope John Paul II as he rode in an open jeep in the Vatican piazza.

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