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Let us save the children, says pope

VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II has dedicated much of his Christmas message to children -- from Palestinian to Israeli, from American to Afghan -- suffering from conflicts.

Speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to tens of thousands of people who gathered in St. Peter's Square on a chilly day beneath a brilliant sun, John Paul, in a weary voice, called young people the hope of humanity.

He also prayed that religion never be an excuse for intolerance and violence.

"Day after day, I bear in my heart the tragic problems of the Holy Land. Every day I think with anxiety of all those who are dying of cold and hunger," John Paul said in his traditional Christmas message.

"May God's holy name never be used as a justification for hatred! Let it never be used as an excuse for intolerance and violence!"

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In deference to his 81 years and his frailness, John Paul II several years ago stopped celebrating Christmas Day Mass in the basilica, making the delivery of his message his sole public appearance of the day.

"Today my thoughts go to all the children of the world: so many, too many are the children condemned from birth to suffer through no fault of their own the effects of cruel conflicts," the pope said, his voice trembling.

"Let us save the children, in order to save the hope of humanity." This, he said, was mankind's urgent task, "to give us back the right to hope."

In the baby Jesus, the pope said, "we can be recognize the face of every little child who is born, of whatever race or nation: The little Palestinian and the little Israeli; the little American and the little Afghan, the child of the Hutu and the child of the Tutsi," he said.

He made no direct reference to the September 11 terrorist attacks or the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan.

But he prayed that God "come where the fate of humanity is most in peril."

Hours earlier, while leading Christmas Eve midnight Mass in the basilica, John Paul spoke somberly of the "relentless news headlines" of recent days.

The Vatican said on Monday it had taken diplomatic steps to try to head off what it called the "arbitrarily imposed" decision of Israel to block Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from attending midnight Mass in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.

In his message on Tuesday, the pope called for support for "those who believe and work, sometimes in the face of opposition, for encounter, dialogue and cooperation between culture and religions."

John Paul II has called leaders of other religions to join in prayers for peace in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, next month.

Italian news reports in the last few weeks have said that St. Peter's Square could be the target of terrorists, especially during the Christmas holidays.

Security was somewhat heavier than in some past years, but it had already been stepped up significantly in 1999 and 2000 in connection with the Holy Year which brought millions of extra pilgrims to the Vatican.

On Tuesday, police searched bags and purses of the arriving faithful.

Police helicopters occasionally flew over Rome in the hours leading up to the pope's appearance, and clusters of extra police dotted the square.


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