Vatican City (AFP), December 24 – Pope Francis called for dialogue on Saturday to counter the isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as billions of people around the world marked a second Christmas in the shadow of the coronavirus.
An explosion of cases sparked by the rise of the Omicron variant has signified a Christmas season marred by the pandemic for the second year in a row, with long-awaited family reunions overshadowed by the prospect of even more Covid-19 restrictions .
In his traditional Christmas Day blessing of Urbi and Orbi, the Pope told the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican that “our capacity for social relations is strained; there is a growing tendency to withdraw, to do it all on your own, to stop making the effort to meet others and do things together.
“At the international level too, there is the risk of avoiding dialogue, the risk that this complex crisis will lead to taking shortcuts rather than embarking on longer paths of dialogue.
“Yet only these paths can lead to conflict resolution and lasting benefits for all,” said the 85-year-old Argentine pontiff.
At the New Year’s Mass attended by some 2,000 members of the public wearing masks and respecting social distancing, the Pope urged people to appreciate the little things in life.
In Bethlehem’s Nativity scene, visitors wearing Santa hats and drumming scouts marked Christmas Eve, but the numbers were lower than normal.
The city where Christians believe Jesus was born is usually a focal point of the holiday, with thousands of people filling the streets and hotels.
But Israel, which controls all entrances to the occupied West Bank where Bethlehem is located, has also banned its borders to foreigners in a bid to curb infections from the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.
– Canceled flights –
In his homily for midnight mass in St. Catherine’s Church in Bethlehem, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said the celebrations were “certainly happier this year”.
“Compared to Christmas last year, the turnout is much higher and that’s an encouraging sign,” he told the masked congregation.
In the southern Philippines, standing in a pool of water at his typhoon-stricken church, Father Ricardo Virtudazo celebrated Christmas Day Mass with dozens of worshipers who prayed for a better year after the storm hit. killed nearly 400 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
“What’s important is that we are all safe,” said Joy Parera, 31, attending the service with her husband in the town of Alegria on the island of Mindanao.
Another survivor, Marites Sotis, said she usually served meat, spring rolls and salad for Christmas, but her family were struggling after the storm brought down most of their coconut trees.
“We won’t have any this year because they are very expensive,” Sotis, 53, told AFP. “We’ll make do with spaghetti.”
For the second year, the surge in infections has complicated Christmas plans from Sydney to Seville.
The new strain of coronavirus has severely disrupted vacation travel, with the tracking website Flightaware.com reporting that more than 4,500 flights have been canceled around the world, including hundreds in the United States.
Millions of Americans were on the move to see loved ones for Christmas, even as Covid infections surpass the peak of the previous wave and hospitals run out of beds.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden and his wife Jill visited a children’s hospital for the traditional Christmas book reading by the First Lady.
In Europe, governments are reimposing poverty-inducing security measures that deplete Christmas fun for many.
The Netherlands are once again stranded, while Spain and Italy have made it compulsory to wear masks outside.
And as Britain hit a record number of Covid-19 infections again on Friday for a third day in a row, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested getting the vaccine as a Christmas present for loved ones.
– ‘Ray of light’ –
Yet Christmas gatherings will be easier than a year ago in many other places around the world.
Most Australians are allowed interstate travel during the holidays for the first time in two years, with Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher saying Christmas was “a ray of light” in dark times.
And Santa was not dissuaded from making his rounds, after showing proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test before the flight, the Ottawa transport minister said.
According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Santa Claus tracking website, Santa Claus delivered 7.6 billion gifts during his round-the-world sleigh tour in 2021.
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