We must all hope for better and more peaceful world, Pope says

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Pope Francis has said in his Christmas Day speech that he hopes for a better world, including successful Middle East negotiations in the land of Jesus’s birth, peace for Syria and several war-torn African countries, and dignity for refugees fleeing misery and conflict.

Francis spoke from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to some 70,000 cheering tourists, pilgrims and Romans in the square below. He said he was joining all those hoping “for a better world”.

Among places ravaged by conflict, Francis singled out Syria, which saw its third Christmas during civil war, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Iraq.

The Pope prayed that Jesus, the “prince of peace”, would “bless the land where you chose to come into the world and grant a favourable outcome to the peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Heal the wounds of the beloved country of Iraq, once more struck by frequent acts of violence”.

Francis then explained his concept of peace.

“True peace is not a balancing of opposing forces. It’s not a lovely facade which conceals conflicts and divisions,” the Pope said in his first Christmas message since being elected in March.

“Peace calls for daily commitment,” Francis said, reading the pages of his speech which were ruffled by a chilly wind.

With a reference to attacks on Christians in Africa and parts of the Middle East, Francis prayed that God “protect all who are persecuted in your name”.

Recalling the hundreds of migrants who drowned trying to reach European shores, Francis also prayed that refugees receive hope, consolation and assistance.

Meanwhile, troops in Afghanistan have got into the festive spirit and celebrated the last Christmas British forces will spend in Helmand province.

More than four tonnes of food, along with thousands of party hats, streamers and Christmas crackers were sent to Afghanistan so that personnel could celebrate despite being away from home.

Pictures showed members of the Army, Royal Navy and RAF, who are deployed on operations over Christmas, enjoying the December 25 festivities.

At Camp Bastion and across the UK’s area of operations, around 6,000 personnel have tucked into two tonnes of turkey, one and a quarter tonnes of gammon, half a tonne of Brussels sprouts, and 8,400 mince pies.

Father Christmas even paid several visits to the troops.

Members of 3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery firing a 105mm gun were surprised when Santa, better known as Regimental Sergeant Major Scott Hawke, appeared on a lorry and delivered presents.

There was a Christmas Eve carol service outside Commander Task Force Helmand’s office, before hundreds of personnel attended Midnight Mass services in tented chapels across Bastion.

As Britain slept early yesterday hundreds of runners gathered in a corner of the camp to start a half marathon round the British and American sectors, sporting everything from Christmas cracker body suits to traditional Santa hats.

Senior Logistics Officer Major Luke Dance from Oxford, is serving in Joint Force Support, Camp Bastion over Christmas. He said: “Being away from home at Christmas is always difficult for any soldier.

“We have an important job to do here, but we try to make sure that as many people as possible get to sit down and have a traditional Christmas lunch.

“It’s a good morale boost 
and the small details help to bring a little bit of home to Afghanistan.”

With the drawdown already under way, all combat troops are due to have left by the end of 2014.

It is not just men and women in Afghanistan who have enjoyed a Christmas Dinner away from home.

Thousands of personnel deployed on ships or stationed around the globe in Cyprus, the Falklands Islands or Gibraltar have also enjoyed a festive meal.

HMS Illustrious, whose recent deployment was extended to deliver critical humanitarian aid to the Philippines, made special arrangements for Christmas.

The Ship’s Commander Logistics, Phil Hally, said: “When our deployment was extended we arranged for Christmas Boxes to be sent out for every member of the Ship’s Company.

“Everyone plays their part in the preparations.”