Fresh attacks on Christians mar Christmas celebrations

PARIS, Dec 25, 2010 (AFP) - Fresh attacks against Christians marred the Christmas festival Saturday as church leaders condemned religious persecution and called for peace and reconciliation.

PARIS, Dec 25, 2010 (AFP) - Fresh attacks against Christians marred the Christmas festival Saturday as church leaders condemned religious persecution and called for peace and reconciliation.

A bomb in a church during Christmas mass in the southern Philippines wounded six people, including the priest, even as Christian leaders highlighted the plight of believers facing the threat of attacks around the world.

Military officials would not immediately name any suspects in the blast on Jolo island, but the island is a known bastion of the Abu Sayyaf, a group linked to the Al-Qaeda network.

"The explosion occurred at around 7:15 in the morning while the mass was going on. Six people were slightly wounded in the explosion," military spokesman Lieutenant Randolph Cabangbang said.

"There is a possibility that this could be the handiwork of the Abu Sayyaf because they have been perpetrating similar attacks against the Catholic church," he added.

In the northern Nigerian city of Kano on Friday, suspected Islamist sect gunmen attacked a church during Christmas Eve services but were fought off by soldiers, a military spokesman said.

No one was hurt, but in the central Nigerian city of Jos the same day, an explosion killed at least eight people and wounded another eight, police said.

There was no immediate indication that the two incidents were linked and police in Jos cautioned that the cause of the explosion had not yet been established.

The latest violence came as a self-proclaimed jihadist said in an audiotaped threat that countries celebrating Christmas would be targeted for attacks, the SITE monitoring group said Friday.

"Your (Christmas) fireworks will act as an alarm for the time of our devices to blow up -- devices that we, not Santa Claus, are going to offer to you as gifts, to turn your night into day and your blood into rivers," said a translation provided by SITE.

The recording, directed to "the unbeliever and Christian countries celebrating Christmas," bore the voice of a member of the Shumukh al-Islam forum, said the US-based monitor.

The latest incidents came as pilgrims flocked to a sun-kissed Bethlehem on Christmas to celebrate in the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The West Bank town was bedecked with Christmas lights and inflatable Santas at every corner.

In his midnight mass at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, the Middle East's senior Catholic bishop, offered a message of solidarity to Iraqi Christians.

"We recall the tragedy that struck the Christian community in Iraq. Such fanatic actions are universally condemned by Christians and Muslims," he said.

Iraqi Christians have been the target of repeated bloody attacks, including a raid on a Baghdad church that killed 44 worshippers and two priests on October 31.

The patriarch's audience in Bethlehem included Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, his prime minister Salam Fayyad and diplomats from several European countries.

In Iraq itself, despite Al-Qaeda threats, about 40 worshippers gathered to mark Christmas Eve at the Saint Joseph church in central Baghdad, less than two months after a massacre at another church in the city.

"Do not fear -- that is the message today," Father Saad Sirop Hanna, the head priest at the Chaldean Catholic church, told his congregation.

In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI prayed for God to punish the world's "oppressors" and bring about "true brotherhood" between peoples in his traditional Christmas message in Saint Peter's basilica.

"Lord make your promise come finally true. Break the rods of the oppressors. Burn the tramping boots. Let the time of the garments rolled in blood come to an end," Benedict said at the Christmas Eve mass in the basilica.

This year the pope was kept further away from the congregation at the mass during his procession to the altar and more security guards were drafted in.

At the Christmas Eve mass last year a mentally unstable Swiss-Italian woman had dragged him to the ground.

In Britain, the leader of the world's Anglicans urged people to remember those across the globe who face persecution because of their Christian faith, in his Christmas Day sermon, extracts of which were released early Saturday.

"We may feel powerless to help; yet we should also know that people in such circumstances are strengthened simply by knowing they have not been forgotten," said the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

The sense of Christmas cheer was being sorely tested in parts of Europe where freezing temperatures have caused transport chaos, with thousands of travellers forced to spend the night in trains or barracks, on ferries or in airports as the snow piled up.

But in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega celebrated a Christmas Eve mass in the country's main prison in Havana. Around 20 prisoners attended the service Friday, a church spokesman said.

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