(JTA) – Pope Benedict XVI prayed for peace in the Middle East during his Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican.
"Let us pray that Israelis and Palestinians may be able to live their lives in the peace of the one God and in freedom," he said in his homily. "Let us also pray for the countries of the region, for Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and their neighbors: that there may be peace there, that Christians in those lands where our faith was born may be able to continue living there, that Christians and Muslims may build up their countries side by side in God’s peace."
Looking tired, the 85-year-old pope prayed that God be taken into people’s lives. But he also warned against abuse of religious belief.
"It is true that religion can become corrupted and hence opposed to its deepest essence, when people think they have to take God’s cause into their own hands, making God into their private property," he said.
Meanwhile, thousands of Christians gathered in Manger Square in Bethlehem Monday night.
"From this holy place, I invite politicians and men of good will to work with determination for peace and reconciliation that encompasses Palestine and Israel in the midst of all the suffering in the Middle East," said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of the Roman Catholic church, in a Christmas Eve address to the pilgrims from around the world.
Twal said the season’s festivities celebrated both "the birth of Christ our Lord and the birth of the state of Palestine.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also visited Bethlehem on Monday night.
About 75,000 Christian pilgrims and visitors were expected to visit Bethlehem this Christmas, down some 25 percent from last year. It is believed that fewer people are visiting due to last month’s Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza.