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Pope comforts terror victims in Christmas message

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VATICAN CITY Pope Francis urged peace in the Middle East as tens of thousands gathered to hear his Christmas address yesterday, while offering comfort to victims of terrorism after a year of bloody jihadist attacks.

The 80-year-old Argentine called for violence to stop in Syria, saying "far too much blood has been spilled" in the nearly six-year conflict. He also urged Israelis and Palestinians to "have the courage and the determination to write a new page of history".

He was speaking from the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica to a crowd of 40,000 in the square below which, despite the sunny weather, was far from full.

As Europe ramped up security for the holiday days after the truck attack that left 12 dead at a Berlin Christmas market, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics said he hoped for "peace to those who have lost a person dear to them as a result of brutal acts of terrorism".

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. - AFP