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Pope urges courage for persecuted

Iraqis have celebrated a sombre Christmas in a Baghdad cathedral stained with dried blood, while Pope Benedict XVI urged Chinese Catholics to stay loyal despite restrictions, in an address laced with worry for the world's Christian minorities.

Saturday's grim news seemed to highlight the Pope's concern for his flock's welfare.

In northern Nigeria, attacks on two churches by Muslim sect members claimed six lives, while bombings in central Nigeria, a region plagued by Christian-Muslim violence, killed 32 people.

Eleven people including a priest were injured by a bombing during Christmas Mass in a police chapel in the Philippines, which has the largest Catholic population in Asia. The attack took place on Jolo island, a stronghold of al Qaida linked militants.

But joy seemed to prevail in Bethlehem, the West Bank town where Jesus was born, which bustled with its biggest crowd of Christian pilgrims in years.

The suffering of Christians around the world framed much of the pontiff's traditional Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and to the world) message.

Bundled up in an ermine-trimmed crimson cape against a chilly rain, he delivered his assessment of world suffering from the central balcony of the Vatican's St Peter's Basilica.

Benedict's exhortation to Catholics who have risked persecution in China highlighted a rise in tensions between Beijing and the Vatican over the Chinese government's defiance of the Pope's authority to name bishops.

Chinese church officials did not immediately comment. A day earlier, one said the Vatican bore responsibility for restoring dialogue after it had criticised leadership changes in China's official church.

Persecution of Christians has been a pressing concern at the Vatican, especially over its dwindling flock in the Middle East. Christians make up only about 2% of the population in the Holy Land today, compared with about 15% in 1950. Earlier this month Benedict denounced lack of freedom of worship as a threat to world peace.

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