Pope Francis on Monday focused his Christmas address on the violence in Israel and war in Gaza that had caused an “appalling” loss of civilian life and brought “sorrow” to Bethlehem, traditionally seen as the birthplace of Jesus, as he called for the release of Israeli hostages and an end to devastating military attacks.

Delivering his “Urbi et Orbi” — or “to the city and to the world” — Christmas blessing on the birth of Jesus as a symbol of peace, Francis, who turned 87 last week, spoke from a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica under gray clouds on an unseasonably warm day in Rome before a crowd of tens of thousands.

He pleaded for peace around the world, naming specific conflicts, including in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Sudan and Ukraine, but it was the conflict in Gaza that was foremost in his message.

“The eyes and the hearts of Christians throughout the world turn to Bethlehem,” Francis said, calling attention to “deep shadows covering the land.” He pleaded for peace to “come in Israel and Palestine, where war is devastating the lives of those peoples,” and said he embraced “them all, particularly the Christian communities of Gaza, the parish of Gaza, and the entire Holy Land.”

Francis’ comments served to amplify his message from the Christmas Eve midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica only hours earlier, where he declared that “our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war.”

Continuing that theme in the Urbi et Orbi address, he said that his “heart grieves for the victims of the abominable attack” on Oct. 7, and reiterated his “urgent appeal for the liberation of those still being held hostage.”

At the same time, he urged Israel to pull back from its campaign in Gaza, where the health ministry says the death toll recently topped 20,000, and aid groups say that people are starving and being pushed into smaller portions of the enclave.

“I plead for an end to the military operations with their appalling harvest of innocent civilian victims,” the pope said, “and call for a solution to the desperate humanitarian situation by an opening to the provision of humanitarian aid.”

Francis delivered the blessing amid a burst of activity from the church, including his recent decisions to allow priests to bless same-sex couples and his crackdown on dissenting prelates who have sought to undercut his mission to make the church more pastoral and less rigid.

But diplomatic efforts on issues of war and peace outside his control have met with little success, clearly frustrating a pontiff who has incessantly called for peace, especially in the Holy Land.

“May there be an end to the fueling of violence and hatred. And may the Palestinian question come to be resolved through sincere and persevering dialogue between the parties, sustained by strong political will and the support of the international community,” Francis said on Monday. He recalled that according to the New Testament, the birth of Jesus was “followed by the slaughter of the innocents.”

“How many innocents are being slaughtered in our world!” Francis asked, extending the list of victims to aborted fetuses, immigrants and children of war. “In their mothers’ wombs, in odysseys undertaken in desperation and in search of hope, in the lives of all those little ones whose childhood has been devastated by war.”

Turning to the arms trade, a frequent target of his criticism, Francis urged the faithful to say no “to the very mindset of war,” calling it “an aimless voyage.”

“If we find instruments of death in our hands, sooner or later we will use them,” he added. “And how can we even speak of peace, when arms production, sales and trade are on the rise?”

He lamented that the poor were often kept in the dark about money used to purchase arms that could be spent on feeding the needy. “That is something they ought to know!” he said.

Francis also prayed for peace in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. He urged the world to remember conflicts in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, Sudan and Cameroon, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, two nations he visited as an earnest, if not successful, peacemaker.

He spoke again of Ukraine, a frequent subject of his prayers, and urged the faithful to “renew our spiritual and human closeness to its embattled people.”

He also called for an easing of tensions and reconciliation between North Korea and South Korea, and addressed the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where he called for the safe and legal return of refugees to their homes, and the ensuring of respect for religious traditions and places of worship on both sides.

And in the Americas, a part of the world dear to the Argentine pope, he expressed hope that the Christmas message of peace would inspire politicians “to resolve social and political conflicts, to combat forms of poverty that offend the dignity of persons, to reduce inequality and to address the troubling phenomenon of migration movements.”

He said it was the responsibility of Christians to be the voice for the voiceless, including those “risking their lives in grueling journeys and prey to unscrupulous traffickers.” The preparation for the Holy Year in 2025, he said, was “an opportunity for the conversion of hearts, for the rejection of war and the embrace of peace.”

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