Pope likely to address year of conflicts in Christmas message

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis will celebrate Christmas on Thursday by sending the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and millions of others his traditional "urbi et orbi" message at the close of a year plagued by war and religious fundamntalism.

In his second Christmas blessing, the popular Argentine pontiff is expected to call for remedies to the world's woes, in particular the brutal persecution of religious minorities seen this year.

At his Christmas Eve mass, he urged Roman Catholics to have greater empathy towards family and friends, saying the world needs "tenderness" and "warmth".

On Thursday, his "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) message, broadcast to millions the world over, is likely to underline the plight of Christians and other religious minorities suffering persecution in the Middle East, notably at the hands of the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group.

In Baghdad, where an estimated 150,000 Iraqi Christians have fled jihadist violence since June, Christmas celebrations took place under a pall.

"We do not have any feelings of joy," said Rayan Dania Sabri at Baghdad's Church of the Ascension, "How can we be joyful when there are thousands still living in camps and schools in poor conditions?"

Francis delivered a Christmas message via telephone to refugees displaced to Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region.

Also expected to rank high among the pope's concerns are the war in Syria and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

The 78-year-old pontiff may also appeal to the warring sides in the Ukraine conflict to turn away from violence.

- Lives lost to Ebola -

In Africa he will no doubt focus on the violence led by Islamic fundamentalists in northeastern Nigeria as well as well as the thousands of lives lost to the Ebola epidemic.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II also was expected to pay tribute to the "selflessness" of medical staff and aid workers fighting the Ebola epidemic in her own annual Christmas Day broadcast.

The pope, who will next year publish an eagerly awaited encyclical on environmental issues and the preservation of "creation", may also touch on global warming and natural disasters.

The speech is generally fairly brief and Francis -- who has been known to extemporise on many occasions -- is thought likely to stick to the prepared text.

He has put an end to a longstanding tradition of popes wishing a happy Christmas in dozens of languages.

In Syria, Christians in the war-torn city of Homs were enjoying their first Christmas in three years in the Hamidiyeh neighbourhood, with a brightly coloured tree and a manger made from rubble set up in the middle of the ruins.

Francis sent a video message to South Koreans recalling his trip to the country in August in which he said: "The great celebration in honour of the (Catholic) martyrs (in the 18th and 19th centuries in Korea), and the encounters with young people remain fresh in my memory."

Cubans prepared to celebrate Christmas, a resurgent holiday banned for 38 years by the communist government, with an early gift from US President Barack Obama: a historic rapprochement.

- 'Peace in Jerusalem' -

In Bethlehem on Christmas Eve hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town's biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

In his homily, Twal called for "peace in Jerusalem", where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and "equality and mutual respect" among all faiths.

He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in which more than 2,200 people died.

Outside the church at Manger Square, a man dressed as Santa Claus handed out sweets next to a giant green Christmas tree decorated with red, black and silver baubles -- the colours of the Palestinian flag.

On Christmas morning in Australia, church leaders reflected on several tragedies that hit the country this year, including the Sydney cafe siege, where two hostages and the gunman died, the killings of eight children in Cairns and the Malaysia Airlines MH370 and MH17 flight disasters.

In Sierra Leone, all public Christmas festivities were cancelled as a result of the Ebola crisis, with soldiers deployed over the holiday season to prevent spontaneous street celebrations, officials said.