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Pope's message laced with worry

VATICAN CITY — Iraqi Christians celebrated a somber Christmas in a Baghdad cathedral stained with dried blood, while Pope Benedict XVI exhorted Chinese Catholics to stay loyal despite restrictions on them in a holiday address underscored by worry for the world's Christian minorities.

Saturday's grim news seemed to highlight the pope's concern for his flock's welfare.

In northern Nigeria, attacks on two churches by Muslim sect members claimed six lives, while bombings in central Nigeria, a region plagued by Christian-Muslim violence, killed 32 people, officials said.

Eleven people including a priest were injured by a bombing during Christmas Mass in a police chapel in the Philippines, which has the largest Catholic population in Asia. The attack took place on Jolo island, a stronghold of al-Qaida linked militants.

But joy seemed to prevail in Bethlehem, the West Bank town where Jesus was born, which bustled with its biggest crowd of Christian pilgrims in years.

The suffering of Christians around the world framed much of the pontiff's traditional Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" message (Latin for "to the city and to the world"). Bundled up in an ermine-trimmed crimson cape against a chilly rain, he delivered his assessment of world suffering from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.

Benedict's exhortation to Catholics who have risked persecution in China highlighted a spike in tensions between Beijing and the Vatican over the Chinese government's defiance of the pope's authority to name bishops. The pope has also been distressed by Chinese harassment of Rome-loyal bishops who didn't want to promote the state-backed official Catholic church.

Persecution of Christians has been a pressing concern at the Vatican of late, especially over its dwindling flock in the Middle East. Christians only make up about 2 percent of the population in the Holy Land today, compared to about 15 percent in 1950.

More than 100,000 pilgrims poured into Bethlehem since Christmas Eve, twice as many as last year, Israeli military officials said, calling it the highest number of holiday visitors in a decade.

" (It's) a really inspiring thing to be in the birthplace of Jesus at Christmas," said Greg Reihardt, 49, from Loveland, Colo.

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