By Rachel Donadio

New York Times

ROME: Speaking from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI called on Tuesday for religious freedom in China and peace for the “defenseless” in Syria in his annual Christmas Day message.

“May peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict which does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims,” Benedict said. “I appeal for an end to the bloodshed, easier access for the relief of refugees and the displaced, and dialogue in the pursuit of a political solution to the conflict.”

Benedict smiled as he offered Christmas greetings in 65 languages to thousands of the faithful in St. Peter’s Square. Marching bands from the Italian armed forces and the Carabinieri police played festive anthems. During Christmas Eve Mass on Monday evening, the 85-year-old pontiff had appeared tired and his voice hoarse, but on Tuesday he appeared more vivacious as he delivered the traditional message to the city and the world.

He also addressed China, where in recent weeks the Vatican has been increasingly at odds with the government over the ordination of bishops, who cannot hold office without approval from the authorities, to the dismay of the Vatican.

“May the King of Peace turn his gaze to the new leaders of the People’s Republic of China for the high task which awaits them,” Benedict said. “I express my hope that, in fulfilling this task, they will esteem the contribution of the religions, in respect for each, in such a way that they can help to build a fraternal society for the benefit of that noble people and of the whole world.”

On Tuesday, Benedict asked God to give Israelis and Palestinians the “courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path of negotiation,” and he called for peace in Egypt, the “land where the Redeemer was born.”

The pope also urged “the return of peace in Mali and that of concord in Nigeria, where savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians.”