Francis celebrates first Christmas as pope

VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis is celebrating his first Christmas as leader of the world's Catholics, riding a wave of popularity and influence after a year shaking up the papacy with his humble style, sense of humour and common touch.

The pope will deliver his first Christmas "Urbi et orbi" blessing at 1100 GMT, a highly anticipated address likely to include themes such as the brutality of poverty and violence against Christians.

Popes often delve into politics and current events in the message whose title literally means "To the City and the World" - praying, for instance, for the victims of conflict or economic injustice.

Francis's inaugural Christmas blessing will be closely watched for the messages chosen by Latin America's first pope, who has accumulated 10 million followers on Twitter - nearing rock-star popularity - and was named "Person of the Year" by Time and the US gay rights magazine The Advocate.

In his first Christmas Eve mass in the Vatican, the 77-year-old pontiff highlighted the role played by shepherds in the Nativity, returning to the theme of compassion for the poor and humility that has been hallmark of his papacy.

Shepherds were the first to witness the birth of Jesus "because they were among the last, the outcast," he said.

The Argentine pope, who was elected this year after his predecessor Benedict XVI's momentous resignation, also called on Catholic believers to open their hearts and struggle against the "spirit of darkness."

"If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us," said Francis at the service in Saint Peter's Basilica.

Francis has repeatedly warned about rising rates of anti-Christian violence, and his address comes at a time when Christians from ancient communities are fleeing the civil war in Syria and deadly fighting has erupted between the Central African Republic's Christian majority and Muslim minority.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Jerusalem's Latin patriarch Fuad Twal celebrated a Christmas Eve midnight mass attended by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists made their way past Israel's controversial separation wall to reach the Palestinian hilltop town, where snow remains on the ground from a rare winter blizzard this month.

A giant Santa was set up in Manger Square, outside the centuries-old Church of the Nativity, where a candle-lit grotto marks the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

In his homily, Twal called for a "just and equitable solution" to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Christians "the answer lies neither in emigration nor in closing in on ourselves. It consists in staying here," the patriarch said.

"From this holy place, we remember all the adversities in our world: from civil wars in Africa to the typhoon in the Philippines, the difficult situation in Egypt and in Iraq, the tragedy playing out in Syria," said Twal, 73.

In the Philippines, where Super Typhoon Haiyan flattened entire towns and left nearly 8,000 people dead or missing, survivors defiantly celebrated Christmas in their ruined communities, roasting hogs and filling churches to overflowing.

But later, heavy rain later put a damper on the festivities, driving them into tents and turning the ground to mud.

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