High-security Christmas as crowds await pope's message

Vatican City (AFP) - Tens of thousands of worshippers were set to gather at the Vatican on Sunday to hear Pope Francis address the world's Christians, as Europe marked Christmas under ramped-up security after the Berlin attack.

The leader of 1.2 billion Catholics was expected to deplore violence around the globe as he gave his fourth "Urbi et Orbi" (To the City and The World) Christmas message from the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica.

Religious leaders from the Vatican to Bethlehem struck a sombre note on Christmas Eve, warning that war, fear and divisions lie ahead in 2017 after a tumultuous year.

In Europe, leaders are still reeling from this week's attack in Berlin where a truck ploughed through a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people in an assault claimed by the Islamic State group.

Locals and tourists alike however are still visiting the German capital's Breitscheidplatz market, with many stopping to light a candle or lay flowers for the victims.

"It's really nice there are so many people here and it's still open," said Marianne Weile, 56, from Copenhagen.

"So even though you are really sad about what happened you can still keep Christmas. It's not like this crazy guy ruined it for everybody."

In Milan, where suspected Berlin attacker Anis Amri was killed in a police shootout on Friday, there was a heavy police presence around the cathedral. The entrance has been protected by concrete barriers since the Berlin attack.

In France, 91,000 members of the security forces have been deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets over the weekend.

- 'Closed doors, defended borders' -

In Israel, security was tight for Christmas celebrations coinciding with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

Some 2,500 worshippers packed the Church of the Nativity complex, built over the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born, for midnight mass in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa used his homily there to plead for compassion for refugees and for a halt to the violence wracking the Middle East.

"We fear the stranger who knocks at the door of our home and at the borders of our countries," he said.

"Closed doors, defended borders, before personal and political choices, are a metaphor for the fear that inevitably breed the violent dynamics of the present time."

Pope Francis struck a similar tone in his Christmas Eve mass, urging a 10,000-strong crowd in St. Peter's Square to feel compassion for children, notably victims of war, migration and homelessness.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury who leads the world's Anglicans, meanwhile said 2016 had left the world more divided and fearful.

"The end of 2016 finds us all in a different kind of world; one less predictable and certain, which feels more awash with fear and division," he was due to say in his sermon Sunday.

- Icy swim, meat auction -

Despite the security fears, many were braving winter temperatures to take part in traditional revelry.

Among them some 30 hardy Slovaks participated in a winter swim at Bratislava's Zlate Piesky lake, some drinking beer in the nearly freezing water.

In London, meat-lovers converged on Smithfield Market for the traditional Christmas Eve auction at butcher Harts, waving banknotes in the air as they bid on turkeys, pork cuts and rump steaks.

But elsewhere there were reminders of the conflicts that have ravaged the world this year.

Christians in Syria's Aleppo were preparing for Christmas services after President Bashar al-Assad's forces retook full control of the ruined former economic hub.

The Old City's Saint Elias Cathedral, its roof collapsed under rocket fire, was set to host its first Christmas mass in five years.

And in Bartalla, near the Iraqi city of Mosul, Christians filled the pews of the fire-scarred Mar Shimoni church for the first service since the town was retaken from IS jihadists who had seized it in 2014.

In the mostly Catholic Philippines, a blast ripped through a police car outside a church as worshippers were arriving for a Christmas Eve mass south of Manila, injuring 13 people.

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