Pope urges world to abandon violence

 

Pope Benedict called on the world to abandon violence and vengeance today and showed no sign of strain after an "unstable" woman lunged at him, forcing him to the ground, on Christmas Eve.

The Vatican said today it would review security procedures in light of last night's incident, in which the Pope was pulled to the ground after a woman jumped the barrier and lunged at him.

In his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" message to the city and the world from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica, the pope urged the world to rediscover the simplicity of the Christmas message and read Christmas greetings in 65 languages.

Benedict appeared a bit unsteady as he approached his chair on the loggia overlooking St Peter's Square to deliver his traditional Christmas blessing and was steadied by an attendant.

But he then spread open his arms, blessed the crowd and delivered his speech without any problem.

In the speech, the pope decried the effects of the world financial crisis, conflicts in the Holy Land and Africa, and the plight of the "tiny flock" of Christians in Iraq.

"At times it is subject to violence and injustice, but it remains determined to make its own contribution to the building of a society opposed to the logic of conflict and the rejection of one's neighbour," he said.

As the pope spoke to tens of thousands of people in the square below, the Vatican remained focused on last night's incident, which raised again the question of how the pope can be protected while still having close contact with people.

Susanna Maiolo (25) an Italian-Swiss national, shocked the Catholic world and Vatican security when she jumped over a barricade in the basilica, lunged at Pope Benedict, grabbed his vestments and caused him to fall to the marble floor.

The Vatican said she was "psychologically unstable" and unarmed and the pope was not hurt in any way. She was taken to an Italian hospital for psychological treatment.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said today that it was impossible to provide watertight security for the pope because being close to people is part of his mission.

"It is impossible to prevent every possibility of something happening, even at close range," Lombardi told reporters.

"The pope wants to have a direct, pastoral relationship with people where you can touch children, shake hands and do what you want to do and what the people want you to do," Lombardi said.

"If you want watertight security you can't do that. Being out of touch with people, being far from them, runs against the spirit of his mission so there will always be a risk," he said.

In his "Urbi et Orbi" message, the pope said today's world had to rediscover the simplicity of the Christmas message.

People should "abandon every logic of violence and vengeance and engage with renewed vigor and generosity in the process which leads to peaceful coexistence".

He said that while the world was currently steeped in a grave financial crisis, it was also affected "even more by a moral crisis, and by the painful wounds of wars and conflicts".

Yesterday's incident took place as the 82-year-old pope, flanked by security men and bishops, was walking up the main aisle of the basilica to start a Christmas Eve mass.

Members of the congregation screamed as Ms Maiolo, wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt, jumped the barrier and lunged at him.

French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray (87) who has been in frail health recently, fell to the floor "in the confusion" and was taken away in a wheelchair. He suffered a broken femur and will have to undergo surgery but is not in serious condition.

The Vatican acknowledged that Ms Maiolo had also tried to jump a barricade to reach the pope at last year's Christmas Mass.

"It's surprising that it happened inside St Peter's, because the security there has changed a great deal in recent years and is much more tight than it used to be," the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, told the BBC.

"But there it is, I'm sure those arrangements will be reviewed and greater care will be taken," he said.

It was the first time a potential attacker came into direct contact with Benedict during his nearly five-year papacy. Security analysts have frequently warned the pope is too exposed in his public appearances.

After getting up, the Pope, flanked by tense bodyguards, reached the basilica's main altar to start the Mass. The pope, who broke his right wrist in a fall this summer, appeared unharmed but somewhat shaken and leaned heavily on aides and an armrest as he sat down in his chair.

Benedict made no reference to the disturbance after the service started or today.

There have been other security breaches at the Vatican.

In 2007, during an open-air audience in St. Peter's Square, a mentally unstable German man jumped a security barrier and grabbed the back of the pope's open car before being swarmed by security guards.

Then there was the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca in 1981. John Paul suffered a severe abdominal wound as he rode in an open jeep at the start of his weekly audience in the Vatican piazza.

The pope is protected by a combination of Swiss Guards, Vatican police and Italian police.

Since the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the US, the Vatican has tightened security at events where the pope is present. All visitors must pass by police to get into the square, with those entering the basilica going through metal detectors or being scanned by metal-detecting wands.

However, Sister Samira, an Indian aide to Vatican officials who attended the service and saw the incident, said she is never searched by security when she attends papal Masses, and said the same holds true for other people in religious garb.

In a similar incident, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was attacked as he was greeting the crowd at a political rally earlier this month. A man with a history of psychological problems hurled a souvenir statuette at the politician, fracturing his nose and breaking two of his teeth.

Benedict celebrated this year's Christmas Eve Mass two hours earlier than the usual midnight starting time in a move by the Vatican to ease the pontiff's busy holiday schedule.

In his homily to more than 10,000 people inside Christendom's largest church, the pope urged the faithful to rediscover the simplicity of the nativity message.

He recounted the traditional Christmas story of Christ's birth in a manger in Bethlehem and urged Catholics to put aside the complexities and burdens of daily life and rediscover the path to God.

"We live our lives by philosophies, amid worldly affairs and life and rediscover the path to God.

"We live our lives by philosophies, amid worldly affairs and occupations that totally absorb us and are a great distance from the manger," he said.

"In all kinds of ways, God has to prod us and reach out to us again and again, so that we can manage to escape from the muddle of our thoughts and activities and discover the way that leads to him," he said.

Benedict has been remarkably healthy during his pontificate, keeping to a busy schedule and traveling around the world.

But in July, he broke his wrist during a late-night fall while on holiday in an Alpine chalet and had to have minor surgery and wear a cast for a month — an episode that highlights the risk he ran in yesterday's tumble.

His next major appearance is scheduled for Sunday, when he joins homeless people at a Rome soup kitchen for lunch. In addition, he is due to preside over a vespers service on December 31st, celebrate Mass on New Year's Day and another one to mark Epiphany on January 6th, and then baptise babies in the Sistine Chapel on January 10th.

Thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations the Palestinian town has seen in years.

Hundreds of worshippers packed St Catherine's Church on Manger Square for morning mass. Most were local Palestinian Christians, and the mass was celebrated in Arabic.

Some 47,000 Filipinos who fled their homes in anticipation of the eruption of the Mayon volcano shared rations of noodles, fried fish and fruit to celebrate Christmas in evacuation centres. Children opened donated presents and clowns entertained the crowds, as the government tried to keep the evacuees from slipping back to their homes.

Agencies