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Earlier on Monday the pope appeared at the window of his apartments in the apostolic palace and lit a peace candle, as a larger-than-life nativity scene was unveiled in St Peter’s Square below.
Reflecting on the gospel account of Jesus born in a stable because there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, he said when people find no room for God in their lives, they will soon find no room for others.
“Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing.
“Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognise him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world,” he said.
He asked for prayers for the people who “live and suffer” in the Holy Land today.
The pope called for peace among Israelis and Palestinians and for the people of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq and prayed that “Christians in those lands where our faith was born may be able to continue living there, that Christians and Muslims may build up their countries side-by-side in God’s peace.”
The Vatican is concerned about the exodus from the Middle East of Christians, many of whom leave because they fear for their safety. Christians now comprise five percent of the population of the region, down from 20 percent a century ago.
According to some estimates, the current population of 12 million Christians in the Middle East could halve by 2020 if security and birth rates continue to decline.
At noon (1100 GMT/6 AM ET) the pope will deliver his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica