VATICAN CITY — In his Christmas message to the world, Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to the slaughter in Syria and for more meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, while encouraging more religious freedom under China’s new leaders.
Delivering the traditional speech on Tuesday from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Benedict also encouraged Arab spring nations, especially Egypt, to build just societies.
The pope prayed that China’s new leaders may ‘‘esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each other’’ to help build a ‘‘fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people.’’
It was a clear reference to the Chinese government’s often harsh treatment of Catholics loyal to the pontiff instead of to the state-sanctioned church. This month, the Vatican refused to accept the decision by Chinese authorities to revoke the title of a Shanghai bishop, who had been appointed in a rare show of consensus between the Holy See and China.
As the 85-year-old pontiff gingerly stepped on the balcony, pilgrims, tourists and Romans packing St. Peter’s Square erupted in cheers.
Less than 12 hours earlier, Benedict had led a two-hour Christmas Eve ceremony in the basilica. He sounded hoarse and looked weary as he read his Christmas message and then holiday greetings in 65 languages.
In his ‘‘Urbi et Orbi’’ speech, which traditionally reviews world events and global challenges, Benedict prayed that ‘‘peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict that does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims.’’
He called for easier access to help refugees and for ‘‘dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.’’
Benedict prayed that God ‘‘grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation.’’
Israel, backed by the United States, opposed the Palestinian statehood bid, saying that it was a ploy to bypass negotiations, something the Palestinians deny. Talks stalled four years ago.
A senior Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, said that in a meeting with the pope last week, President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine ‘‘emphasized our total readiness to resume negotiations.’’
The Palestinians have not dropped their demand that Israel first stop settlement activities before returning to the negotiating table.
Hours earlier, in the ancient Bethlehem church built over the site where tradition holds that Jesus was born, candles illuminated the sacred site and the joyous sound of prayer filled its overflowing halls.
Overcast skies and a cold wind in the Holy Land did not faze worshipers in the biblical West Bank town. Bells pealed and long lines formed inside the fourth-century Church of the Nativity complex as the Christian faithful waited to see the grotto.
‘Esteem the contribution of the religions.’
Their Palestinian hosts, who welcome this holiday as the high point of their city’s year, were especially joyous this season, proud of the United Nations’ recognition of an independent state of Palestine just last month.
In his speech, Benedict offered encouragement to countries after the Arab spring of pro-democracy protests. He had a special mention for Egypt, ‘‘blessed by the childhood of Jesus.’’
Without citing the tumultuous politics and clashes in the region, he urged North Africa to build societies ‘‘founded on justice and respect for the dignity of every person.’’