By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press

ROME (AP) – Pope Francis prayed on Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all, vaccines for the poor and for dialogue to prevail in the conflict resolution around the world.

Amid a record spike in COVID-19 cases in Italy this week, only a few thousand people flocked to a soggy St. Peter’s Square for Francis’ annual event “Urbi et Orbi” (“To the city and to the world ”) Christmas address. Normally, the square would be filled with tens of thousands of holiday supporters.

At least they could get together this year. The holiday lockdown in Italy in 2020 forced Francis to deliver a televised address from inside the Apostolic Palace to prevent crowds from forming in the plaza. Although Italy this week counted more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time, the government has not ordered another lockdown.

The pope’s speech on Christmas Day gives him the opportunity to draw the attention of a global audience to conflicts large and small. This year was no different. François deplored the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, the new tensions in Ukraine and Ethiopia and an “unprecedented crisis” in Lebanon.

Political cartoons about world leaders

Political cartoons

“We have become so used to them (to conflicts) that immense tragedies have now been overlooked; we risk not hearing the cry of pain and distress from so many of our brothers and sisters, ”he said from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica as the Swiss guards stood at attention on the square below.

Francois warned of the pandemic tendency to withdraw and isolate himself, instead urging dialogue to try to resolve global conflicts. He especially prayed for those most affected by the virus, including women and children who have suffered increased abuse during the closures.

“Son of God, console the victims of violence against women, which has increased in this period of pandemic. Offer hope to young children and adolescents who are bullied and abused, ”he said.

He prayed for “comfort and warmth” for the elderly alone, as well as for health workers who “give generously” to the care of the sick.

“Grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of good will to seek the best possible means to overcome the current health crisis and its effects,” he said. “Open hearted to ensure that necessary medical care – and vaccines in particular – are provided to those who need it most. “

Francis delivered his speech hours after celebrating a “Midnight Mass” service for some 2,000 people, a fraction of the basilica’s capacity. The service actually started at 7:30 p.m., a nod to the endurance of the 85-year-old Pope and a delay from last year, when the service was due to end before Italy’s national COVID-19 curfew. .

For the second day in a row, Italy set a daily pandemic record on Friday with 50,599 new cases. Another 141 people have died, bringing the official death toll in Italy from the pandemic to 136,386.

With the arrival of the omicron variant in Italy, the Vatican Secretary of State this week imposed a new vaccine mandate on Vatican staff, extending it to all employees except those who have recovered. of COVID-19.

Previously, only employees who dealt directly with the public had to be vaccinated, such as staff at the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guards. Other Vatican workers could access their offices with regular testing. Now there is no exemption from testing.

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