VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI urged a world confronting a financial crisis, conflict, and increasing poverty not to lose hope at Christmas, but to join in "authentic solidarity" to prevent global ruin.
His message of salvation amid growing concern about the economic meltdown facing rich and poor nations alike was echoed across the continent in London, where Britain's Queen Elizabeth II called for courage in response to the rough times.
Speaking from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to tens of thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans in the square below, the pope called his Christmas message known as "Urbi et Orbi" — Latin for "to the City and to the World" — a "proclamation of hope." And he stressed that it was "meant for all men and women."
As the global economy continues to spiral downward, Benedict said, "an increasingly uncertain future is regarded with apprehension, even in affluent nations."
"In each of these places, may the light of Christmas shine forth and encourage all people to do their part in a spirit of authentic solidarity," he said. "If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart."
Wearing a crimson mantle against a damp chill, Benedict expressed hope that dialogue and negotiation would prevail to find "just and lasting solutions" to conflicts in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East.
He decried suffering in Africa, terrorism, and called for an end to "internecine conflict" dividing ethnic and social groups.
The pope singled out the plight of those in war-torn eastern Congo, in Sudan's Darfur region, in Somalia where he said "interminable" suffering is the tragic consequence of "the lack of stability and peace" — and in Zimbabwe where people have been "trapped for all too long in a political and social crisis which, sadly, keeps worsening."
Benedict condemned the "twisted logic of conflict and violence" in the Middle East, which he is likely to visit next year. He lamented that "the horizon seems once again bleak for Israelis and Palestinians."
Following tradition, the pope recited holiday greetings in 64 languages, including Latin, the Church's official tongue.
In Bethlehem, crowds of tourists joined local Palestinian Christians in marking Christmas in Jesus' traditional birthplace. Merchants and innkeepers reported good business for the first time in years with tensions between Israelis and West Bank Palestinians appeared to be easing.
"I came here to see the oldest church that is still in use," he said. "It's not every Christmas that you're surrounded with people from all over the world."
In Iraq, the government declared Christmas a holiday for the first time, a surprise for the country's Christian minority estimated to number only a few hundred thousand of the 26 million Iraqis who are overwhelmingly Muslim.
Christians have often been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists in Iraq, and in his homily at Christmas Mass at a Baghdad monastery, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly praised the establishment of Christmas as an official holiday as a step toward easing tensions. In a gesture of cooperation with the Christians, a senior Shiite cleric, Ammar al-Hakim, attended the Mass, flanked by bodyguards.
For the 146,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq, the holiday was marked with special meals and chapel services — but most of all by thoughts of families at home and calls to loved ones.
Both the outgoing and incoming leaders of the United States were spending Christmas with family.
U.S. President George W. Bush and relatives including his father, former President George H.W. Bush, were celebrating the holiday at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. President-elect Barack Obama and his family were vacationing in a beachfront rental home in his native Hawaii.
Both leaders remembered U.S. military serving away for home in holiday messages.
In the splendor of Buckingham Palace's Music Room, Queen Elizabeth acknowledged to her subjects that the economic crisis had given rise "to feelings of insecurity" and cast a pall over holiday celebrations.
"People are touched by events which have their roots far across the world," she said. "Whether it is the global economy or violence in a distant land, the effects can be keenly felt at home."
But the queen stressed that "when life seems hard the courageous do not lie down and accept defeat; instead they are all the more determined to struggle for a better future."