Pope Benedict XVI urged loyal Catholics in China to have courage in the face of communist limits on religious freedom and conscience in a Christmas Day message highlighting the tensions between Beijing and the Vatican.
Benedict used his traditional holiday speech, delivered from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica to tourists and pilgrims in the rain-soaked square, to encourage people living in the world's troublespots to take hope from the "comforting message" of Christmas.
Those spots range from strife-torn Afghanistan to the volatile Korean peninsula to the Holy Land where Jesus was born - and even to China.
In recent weeks, tensions have flared anew between the Vatican and Beijing over the Chinese government's defiance of the Pope's authority to name bishops and its insistence that prelates loyal to Rome attend a gathering to promote China's state-backed church against their will.
"May the birth of the saviour strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but may keep alive the flame of hope," Benedict prayed aloud.
The Pope also expressed hope that Christmas might inspire respect for human rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan and "advance reconciliation on the Korean peninsula".
Benedict has repeatedly spoken out about the plight of Christians in Iraq, many of whom have fled their country to escape persecution and violence, including an attack on a Baghad basilica during Mass. He prayed that Christmas would "ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and in the Middle East".
"May the light of Christmas shine forth anew in the land where Jesus was born, and inspire Israelis and Palestinians to strive for a just and peaceful coexistence," Benedict said in his traditional Urbi et Orbi address (Latin for 'to the city and to the world').