(CNN) -- Pope Benedict XVI urged warring parties in Syria on Tuesday to end the 21-month-old civil war.
"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," the pope said in his traditional Christmas message, delivered from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.
"Once again, 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."
Sunni Muslims make up three-quarters of Syria's 22.5 million people. But Christians, who represent 10% of the population, have been drawn into the war, which has largely been fought by the Alawite-dominated government and the largely Sunni opposition.
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare a homemade missile before they launch it toward the military airport in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday, December 23. Click through to view images from Syria from December, or see photos of the conflict from November.
Free Syrian Army members display shrapnel from what they say are the remains of a rocket fired from the Syrian army in northern Aleppo on Thursday, December 20. An unexploded bomb is seen lodged in a street in Ghouta, east of Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, December 19.
A Free Syrian Army fighter aims his weapon through a hole in the wall of the structure where he is positioned in the Qastal Harami area of Aleppo on December 19.
A child sits in the back of a vehicle at the border crossing leading to Masnaa, Lebanon, as people wait to stamp their documents before leaving Syria on December 19. Click through to view images from Syria from December, or see photos of the conflict from November.
Palestinian children who fled the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmuk wait at the Masnaa Border Crossing leading into Lebanon on December 19.
Syrians line up outside a bakery offering cheap bread in Aleppo, Syria on Sunday, December 16. A Syrian boy walks past a rebel fighter in the northern town of Darkush, Syria, on Friday, December 14.
Two men on a motorcycle lead a horse through the northern town of Darkush, Syria, on December 14, 2012.
Rebel fighters push out a boat carrying two Syrian women fleeing to Turkey through the Orontes River near the northern Syrian town of Darkush on December 14.
Passengers gather at a terminal at the airport in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday, December 12.
A member of the Syrian opposition's Al-Buraq Brigade stands guard on a main road in the northern Syrian town of Ain Dakna near the Turkish border on Monday, December 10. Click through to view images of the fighting from December, or see photos of the conflict from November.
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes position as he aims his weapon in Aleppo's al-Amereya district on Tuesday, December 11.
Men warm themselves by a fire on a street corner in Aleppo, Syria, on Sunday, December 9.
A rebel soldier watches Al-Jazeera news in a shop near the front lines in Aleppo on December 9.
A rebel soldier prays in a shop in Aleppo on December 9.
Syrians mourn a fallen fighter at a rebel base in the al-Fardos area of Aleppo on Saturday, December 8.
A Syria rebel commander sits behind a desk in his bombed-out position in Aleppo on December 8.
A Syrian rebel fighter emerges from a hole in a wall in Aleppo on December 8.
Rebel fighters take part in a demonstration against the Syrian regime after Friday prayers in Aleppo on December 7.
A wounded rebel fighter is transported to a hospital in the back of a truck in Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday, December 6. At least 23 people died in Syria on Thursday, most of them in Damascus and Aleppo, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria. Rebel soldiers stand guard inside a building in Aleppo on December 6. Angelina Jolie, special envoy for the U.N. refugee agency, meets with Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp outside Mafraq, Jordan, on December 6. In this handout from the Shaam News Network, Free Syrian Army fighters stand guard against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Al-khalidiya neighborhood of Homs on Tuesday, December 4. In this handout from the Shaam News Network, Free Syrian Army fighters take cover in destroyed buildings during clashes with regime forces on December 4.
Syrians cross the border from Ras al-Ain, Syria, to the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar on Tuesday, December 4. Boys walk through a damaged area In Aleppo, Syria, seen through a destroyed car on December 4.
A man inspects rubble in a neighborhood of Aleppo on Sunday, December 2.
The bodies of three children reportedly killed in a mortar shell attack are laid out for relatives to identify at a makeshift hospital in Aleppo on December 2. Smoke rises from fighting in the Hanano and Bustan al-Basha districts of Aleppo on Saturday, December 1. Syrian-Kurdish women and members of the Popular Protection Units, an armed opposition group to the Syrian government, stand guard during a comrade's funeral in a northern Syrian border village on December 1.
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Christmas amid conflict in Syria
Intense violence kills dozens in Syria Christians have been historically protected by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and have been reluctant to take sides. Some Christians in Syria abhor al-Assad, and others support the government. Many have been apprehensive about the prospects of an opposition government and fear the influx of jihadists in rebel ranks.
Jaramana, a town in the Damascus suburbs with a Christian and Druze population that has mostly been pro-regime, was the site of violence Monday night.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels ambushed and killed a military intelligence officer there.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition network, said Tuesday that Free Syrian Army rebels killed five military intelligence soldiers in clashes with government forces.
A report issued last week by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria focused on sectarian hostilities and referred to dangers faced by Christians. It cited a car bombing outside a bakery in Jaramana and the kidnapping of Christians in September.
Before the conflict started in March 2011, the largest Christian communities were in the Damascus, Aleppo and Homs regions, it said. But many Christians have fled their homes because of the violence.
Homs Christians have escaped to Damascus, and some have made their way to Beirut; Armenians who had been living in Syria have sought refuge in Armenia.
Syria's Armenian Orthodox and other Christian communities "have sought protection by aligning themselves with the government, with the consequence that they have come under attack from anti-government armed groups," the report said.
Some Christians have formed "armed self-defense groups to protect their neighborhoods from anti-government fighters by establishing checkpoints around these areas."
More than 40,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. At least 171 people were killed Tuesday, the LCC said. Of those, 61 died in Damascus and its suburbs.
Escaping Syria to marry The Syrian Observatory reported that rebel fighters had taken over the town of Harem in Idlib province. Regime forces and militia allies surrendered; many of them and pro-government civilians died during clashes, it said.
Tuesday's violence occurred after two days of air assaults on Syrians who had been waiting on line for bread. An air assault in Homs province killed at least 15 people Monday, a day after more than 100 were killed at a bakery in Hama province, opposition activists said.
Both bombings took place in areas known for anti-government sentiment. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) blamed "armed terrorist groups" for the Hama province attack.
Doctor: Mystery gas kills six, injures dozens
A doctor in Homs said six people have died after exposure to a mysterious gas. Dr. Abu al Fida said he treated about 30 of the more than 60 people who were affected by the gas this week.
Those who were close to the source of the gas suffered symptoms such as paralysis, seizures, muscle spasms and, in some cases, blindness, he said. Those who were farther from the source suffered difficulty breathing, disorientation, hallucinations, nervousness and a lack of limb control similar to excessive tear gas exposure, he said.
Al Fida said those affected responded well to atropine, which is used to treat sarin gas patients, but it was unclear what the substance may have been.
He said the gas appeared as a white flash that went clear.
Opposition activist Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said six rebel fighters died after inhaling a white gas that had no smell.
"Gas was released and spread in the area after members of the regime forces threw canister bombs," Abdulrahman said. "... The activists said that everyone who (inhaled) the gas felt severe headaches, and some had seizures."
CNN cannot independently confirm government or opposition reports from Syria because the government has severely restricted access by journalists.
State-run SANA quoted Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, as warning that "allegations of the Syrian government using chemical weapons could be excuses for foreign military intervention in Syria."
It added, "In a statement to journalists on Tuesday, Lukyanov said that the reports on chemical weapons in Syria could be exploited to undermine the authorities and motivate foreign forces, stressing that there's no proof that chemical weapons have been used and that these reports seem to be another round of the media war against Syria."
U.S. President Barack Obama has previously warned that any use of chemical weapons by Syria in its civil war would be crossing a "red line" that would prompt a swift U.S. response.
Diplomatic front: More talks, but no clear results
On the diplomatic front, U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Tuesday with members of the National Opposition Coordination Commission at a hotel in Damascus. Commission Chairman Hassan Abdel Azim said possible solutions to the crisis were reviewed with the envoy. The group is seen as a government-approved opposition group or regime front. It is not recognized by other opposition groups, such as the LCC or the Free Syrian Army.
Tuesday's meeting came a day after Brahimi met with al-Assad.
The LCC on Tuesday laid out its demands for peace talks. It said it would reject any initiative that would force Syrians "to choose between accepting unfair compromises or the continuation of the regime's crimes against them." The group also warned against granting the government "more time to continue to destroy and kill."
The LCC said that the president and his officials must leave power in order for any initiative to work, and that any plan to give the government immunity against prosecution would be "immediately rejected, as it threatens the chance for Syrians to succeed in achieving justice."
In Bahrain, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council called for an immediate end to violence in Syria, and pledged support for the opposition, Kuwaiti state-run news said.
Members of the group, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have supported the Syrian opposition. The four other Gulf Cooperation Council members are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.
CNN's Amir Ahmed, Samira Said and Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report.