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VATICAN CITY (Reuters)

Tens of thousands of people, many of them children, serenaded Pope Francis on his 81st birthday on Sunday, as the pontiff appealed for the release of Catholic nuns kidnapped last month in Nigeria

The crowd sang Happy Birthday in Italian as the pontiff appeared at the window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square for his weekly message and blessing.

 

Pope Francis embraces a baby during a special meeting to celebrate his birthday at Paul VI hall at the Vatican
Pope Francis embraces a baby during a special meeting to celebrate his birthday at Paul VI hall at the Vatican December 17, 2017. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters

 

The first Latin American pope was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on Dec. 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires. The former cardinal of the Argentine capital became leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in 2013.

In keeping with a long-standing tradition in Rome, the children faced the pope’s window and held up small statues of the baby Jesus for him to bless. The statues are placed in home nativity scenes, a custom still practised in many Italian families.

 

 

Francis, who has often warned against excessive materialism during the holiday season, departed from his address to say: “This is the real Christmas. If we remove Jesus, what is left? An empty feast.”

He appealed for the release of six Roman Catholic nuns kidnapped from their convent in the town of Iguoriakhi, Nigeria, last month. Francis said he hoped they and all other victims of kidnappings could be home for Christmas.

 

(Additional reporting by Paul Carstens in Lagos; Editing by Gareth Jones)

 

Pope Francis blows on a cake to celebrate his birthday during a special meeting at Paul VI hall at the Vatican
Pope Francis blows on a cake to celebrate his birthday during a special meeting at Paul VI hall at the Vatican December 17, 2017. Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters

 

Pope Francis waves during his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
Pope Francis waves during his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

A man holds a statue of baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
A man holds a statue of baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

People hold placards reading "Best wishes Holiness" as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
People hold placards reading “Best wishes Holiness” as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

A child holds a statue of baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
A child holds a statue of baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

A child holds a statue of baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican
A child holds a statue of baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads his Sunday Angelus prayer, on the day of his birthday, in Saint Peter’s square at the Vatican December 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
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