Pope Francis expressed deep concern on Sunday that the timeless message of peace heralded by Jesus is being drowned out by the “futile logic of war” in the very land of his birth. Leading the world’s Roman Catholics into Christmas, the pontiff, celebrating the 11th Christmas of his pontificate, delivered a solemn Christmas Eve Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, addressing the ongoing war in the Holy Land during his homily. “Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world,” said Francis. He emphasised that the true essence of Christmas lies in peace and love and urged people to refrain from being consumed by worldly success, cautioning against the “idolatry of consumerism”. He spoke of “the all-too-human thread that runs through history: the quest for worldly power and might, fame and glory, which measures everything in terms of success, results, numbers, and figures – a world obsessed with achievement”.
Bethlehem resembles a ghost town as celebrations are halted
The normally-bustling biblical birthplace of Jesus resembled a ghost town on Sunday, as Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem were called off due to the Israel-Hamas war. The festive lights and Christmas tree that normally decorate Manger Square were missing, as were the throngs of foreign tourists who gather each year to mark the holiday. Dozens of Palestinian security forces patrolled the empty square. The gift shops were slow to open on Sunday, although a few did once the rain had stopped. There are few visitors, however. “This year, without the Christmas tree and without lights, there’s just darkness,” said Brother John Vinh, a Franciscan monk from Vietnam who has lived in Jerusalem for six years. He said he always comes to Bethlehem to mark Christmas, but this year was especially sobering, as he gazed at a nativity scene in Manger Square with a baby Jesus wrapped in a white shroud, reminiscent of the hundreds of children killed in the fighting in Gaza. Barbed wire surrounded the scene, the grey rubble reflecting none of the joyous lights and bursts of colour that normally fill the square during the Christmas season.
“Massive obstacles” to Gaza aid – Guterres
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the way Israel is conducting its offensive against Hamas was “creating massive obstacles to the distribution of humanitarian aid inside Gaza”. In a post on X, the Portuguese diplomat said: “An effective aid operation in Gaza requires security; staff who can work in safety; logistical capacity; and the resumption of commercial activity”. He added that 136 UN aid workers in Gaza have been killed in 75 days of combat – something he described as unprecedented in the body’s history. On Friday, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for increased aid deliveries to Gaza, urging Israel to “create the conditions for sustainable cessation of hostilities”, but stopped short of calling for a ceasefire in the conflict.
Israel paying “heavy price” for war as deaths mount
Israel is paying a “heavy price” for its war on Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, as the toll of soldiers killed in fighting with Hamas mounted. “This is a difficult morning, after a very difficult day of fighting in Gaza,” he said after the army announced that 14 soldiers had been killed in the Palestinian territory since Friday. Israel’s President and Prime Minister both warned the country to brace for a lengthy conflict in speeches on Sunday, and urged unity and determination. “Let’s be very clear: this will be a long war,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said, vowing to continue the war, which has now claimed the lives of more than 150 Israeli troops, as well as over 20,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
“This war is exacting a high price from us, but we have no choice other than to continue to fight,” Netanyahu said as he opened the Cabinet meeting at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv. “All the government and the people of Israel send our sympathies to the families of the heroes who fell in the war for our home,” he said. Funerals were held on Sunday for some of the fallen Israeli soldiers, 14 of whom were killed this weekend alone, marking some of the bloodiest days of the conflict for both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. The Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health announced that 70 civilians were killed in an Israeli air strike on the al-Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza as the Israeli military also expanded its ground offensive. Many more are reported buried in the concrete debris. Meanwhile, the IDF revealed a large Hamas tunnel network in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya camp, where the bodies of five Israeli hostages were recovered earlier this month.
Netanyahu’s wife writes to the Pope: “Intervene for hostages”
Sarah Netanyahu, the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, has written a letter to Pope Francis asking for his “personal intervention” in the Israeli hostage situation in the hands of Hamas in Gaza. “Your Holiness,” she wrote, “I ask for your personal intervention on this topic. Please use your influence to demand their unconditional release without delay. I also ask you to appeal to the Red Cross to visit all the hostages and give them vital medicines. Your intervention could tip the balance and save precious lives.”
Ukrainians defy Moscow with first 25th December Christmas
Many Ukrainians will today celebrate Christmas Day on 25th December for the first time, after the government changed the date from the Orthodox Church observance of 7th January in a snub to Russia. Ukraine passed a law in July moving the celebration to 25th December, the day when most of the Christian world marks Christmas.The law, signed by President Zelensky, noted that Ukrainians wanted to “live their own life with their traditions and holidays”. It allows them to “abandon the Russian heritage of imposing Christmas celebrations on 7th January”, it added. Christianity is the largest religion in Ukraine, with the Russian Orthodox Church dominating religious life until recently.
Russia may attempt to attack Europe next winter – Bild
European intelligence suggests that Russia may launch an attack on Europe during the winter of 2024-2025 if the United States finds itself “without a leader” following the 2024 US presidential election, the German tabloid Bild reported, quoting an anonymous European intelligence source. The intelligence source contends that a potential Russian strike on Europe could occur within the presidential transitionary period, contingent on President Joe Biden not securing re-election in the 2024 US presidential election. This transition period spans three months, from the November 2024 US presidential election to the subsequent inauguration in January 2025.
According to the intelligence source, Russia may aim to launch an attack on Europe during this transition, especially if the leading Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump, is re-elected. Assistance to European countries is anticipated to follow, albeit with some delay. The German think tank DGAP has issued prior warnings to Western nations, suggesting that Russia might launch a direct attack against NATO in “as little as six to 10 years”, while Poland’s national security agency has expressed a more urgent concern, estimating that Russia could potentially attack NATO in less than 36 months. Polish officials have previously suggested that Russia might target a NATO alliance member in Eastern Europe, including countries such as Poland, Estonia, Romania, and Lithuania.
Iran’s navy receives ‘smart’ long-range missiles
Sophisticated domestically-made cruise missiles have been delivered to Iran’s navy, state media reported on Sunday. The arrival comes amid growing regional tension between Tehran and Iran-backed militant groups on one side, and Israel and its Western allies over the Israel-Hamas conflict. State media said the Talaeiyeh cruise missile has a range of over 1,000 kilometers. The head of Iran’s navy, Admiral Shahran Irani, said the weapon is “a smart missile that can change targets mid-mission”, adding that the missiles were designed by Iran’s own military sector. The admiral also said the other deliveries to the Navy included reconnaissance helicopters, drones, and marine cruise missiles that can be launched from warships. The missiles were delivered to a naval base in the southern Iranian port of Konarak, southeast of the capital, Tehran. Iran says it has a stock of various kinds of missiles with ranges up to 2,000 kilometers, capable of reaching its archenemy Israel and US bases in the region. Iran backs Hamas, Hezbollah, another Islamist militant group in Lebanon, as well as Houthi rebels that control large parts of Yemen. After Israel began its offensive in Gaza in October, the Houthis have targeted Israeli-linked shipping in the Red Sea as well as vessels belonging to large international shipping firms.
Greece to join US-led coalition to protect Red Sea shipping
Greece will send a warship to support a United States-led naval coalition in the Red Sea, becoming the latest country to join the alliance to counter threats from Yemen’s Houthis. Defence Minister Nikos Dendias announced the move in a televised address, saying Greece, as a major shipping nation, has a “fundamental interest” in addressing the “massive threat” to maritime transport. The naval task force, announced by the US on Tuesday, initially listed 10 member nations to help patrol the waters to deter the Iran-aligned Houthis, who have attacked more than a dozen vessels they claim were linked to Israel amid the war on Gaza. The Houthis say they will halt their attacks only if Israel’s ”crimes in Gaza stop”. The original members of the Red Sea task force – called Operation Prosperity Guardian – include the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain. Since then, Denmark has also joined the alliance, according to the Reuters. Meanwhile, EU Member states have agreed to contribute through the European Naval Force. Australia stopped short of committing its warships to the alliance but said it would send 11 military personnel to support the mission.
Arrests, injuries in violent Belgrade protests
Thirty-five demonstrators were arrested and several Serbian police were injured, two seriously, in yesterday’s violent clashes in Belgrade, as opposition supporters besieged the Town Hall for hours, trying on several occasions to enter the building. For the seventh consecutive day, ‘Serbia against violence’, the main Opposition group, had organised an anti-government demonstration to denounce the alleged fraud in the parliamentary and administrative elections of 17th December.
Sunday’s rally, convened as usual in front of the headquarters of the electoral commission, quickly degenerated into a violent protest, with several thousand demonstrators heading towards the nearby Town Hall with the intention of attacking it. Many tried on several occasions to cross the fences and force their way into the building, when a huge police force in riot gear arrived. Against the violent demonstrators, who had long targeted the City Hall with a constant throwing of eggs, plastic bottles, tomatoes, and other objects, the police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the group. Several entrance doors to the Town Hall and several windows were destroyed. In the end the police managed to create a solid cordon around the Town Hall, pushing the demonstrators back into the side streets and towards Slavija Square. President Vucic later called an urgent meeting of the National Security Council.
Fire at Rome mega landfill
A large fire broke out in Malagrotta, on the site that hosts Rome’s former mega landfill which led the authorities to advise those living within a radius of six kilometres to keep their windows closed and not use air conditioners, to avoid smoke inhalation. No injuries or poisonings were reported. The cloud of smoke, in the area on the extreme outskirts of Rome, was visible from a distance. Around 650 tonnes of waste every day, for a total of 200,000 tonnes a year, are delivered to what is described as “the second most important waste treatment plant in Rome”. The mechanical-biological treatment plant, which cold treats residual waste after separate collection, was the last of this type left in Rome; three others in the past had been destroyed by fires and closed.
“Without referees, there’s no football” – Infantino
FIFA president Gianni Infantino talked about abuse and violence against referees at the 2023 FIFA Football Summit in Saudi Arabia, declaring that “Without referees, there’s no football.” He added, “We all have to fight for the referees against any sort of abuse and violence against them, but also to bring back respect and tolerance. And this starts with us. This starts with you.” Infantino also stressed the unifying feature of football and said, “Our goals are obviously to make football truly global and to involve and include the entire world.” Pierluigi Collina, the Chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee, also backed referees and warned the authorities by saying, “Do something before it’s too late. Enough is enough!” Several legendary players, including Alessandro Del Piero, Kaka, and Gilberto Silva, also made statements about online abuse suffered by players, saying, “All of us here can do our part to stop this online abuse. All together, we can do a lot of things.”
The former head of the Ankaragucu football club, Faruk Koca, 59, was remanded into custody for punching Halil Umut Meler in the face after a Super Lig match against Caykur Rizespor that ended in a 1-1 draw on December 11. Following the final whistle, Koca walked onto the pitch and punched the FIFA-licensed referee. Once Meler fell to the ground, several people kicked him, and the 37-year-old referee was taken to an Ankara hospital. FIFA, condemned the violence.
Main photo: Vatican Media