VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict used his Christmas message to the world on Tuesday to say people should never lose hope for peace, even in conflict-riven Syria and in Nigeria where he spoke of "terrorism" against Christians.
Marking the eighth Christmas season of his pontificate, the 85-year-old read his "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message to tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square and to millions of others watching around the world.
Delivering Christmas greetings in 65 languages, Benedict used the Biblical analogy of the "good soil" to underscore his view that the hope represented by Christmas should never die, even in the most dire situations.
"This good earth exists, and today too, in 2012, from this earth truth has sprung up! Consequently, there is hope in the world, a hope in which we can trust, even at the most difficult times and in the most difficult situations," he said.
In his virtual tour of the some of the world's trouble spots, he reserved his toughest words for Syria, Nigeria and Mali.
"Yes, may peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict which does not spare even the defenceless and reaps innocent victims," he said.
"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."
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics also condemned conflicts in Mali and Nigeria, two countries where Islamist groups have waged violent campaigns.
"May the birth of Christ favour the return of peace in Mali and that of concord in Nigeria, where savage acts of terrorism continue to reap victims, particularly among Christians," he said.
In Nigeria, the Islamist sect Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in the north of the country, targeting a number of churches.
In Mali, a mix of Islamists with links to al Qaeda have occupied the country's north since April, destroying much of the region's religious heritage. They have also carried out amputations to help impose strict Islamic law on a population that has practised a more moderate form of Islam for centuries.
Benedict also held out a Christmas olive branch to the new government in China, asking is members to "esteem the contributions of religions". China does not allow its Catholics to recognise the pope's authority, forcing them to be members of a parallel state-backed Church.
Late on Monday night, Benedict presided over a Christmas Eve Mass in St Peter's Basilica, where he urged people to find room for God in their fast-paced lives filled with the latest technological gadgets.
"Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him," he said.
"The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full," he said.
He said societies had reached the point where many people's thinking processes did not leave any room even for the existence of God.
"There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so 'full' of ourselves that there is no room left for God."
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)