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By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters)

Pope Francis strongly defended immigrants at his Christmas Eve Mass on Sunday, comparing them to Mary and Joseph finding no place to stay in Bethlehem and saying faith demands that foreigners be welcomed

Francis, celebrating his fifth Christmas as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, led a solemn Mass for about 10,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica while many others followed the service from the square outside.

 

Pope Francis arrives to the traditional midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve at the Vatican
Pope Francis arrives to the traditional midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve at the Vatican December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

Security was stepped up, with participants checked as they approached St. Peter’s Square even before going through metal detectors to enter the basilica. The square had been cleared out hours earlier so security procedures could be put in place.

 

Pope Francis kisses a statue of baby Jesus during the traditional midnight Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve at the Vatican
Pope Francis kisses a statue of baby Jesus during the traditional midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve at the Vatican December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

The Gospel reading at the Mass in Christendom’s largest church recounted the Biblical story of how Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered for a census ordered by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.

 

 

“So many other footsteps are hidden in the footsteps of Joseph and Mary. We see the tracks of entire families forced to set out in our own day. We see the tracks of millions of persons who do not choose to go away, but driven from their land, leave behind their dear ones,” Francis said.

 

Children stand in front of the statuette of baby Jesus during the traditional midnight Mass led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve at the Vatican
Children stand in front of the statuette of baby Jesus during the traditional midnight Mass led by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve at the Vatican December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

 

Even the shepherds who the Bible says were the first to see the child Jesus were “forced to live on the edges of society” and considered dirty, smelly foreigners, he said. “Everything about them generated mistrust. They were men and women to be kept at a distance, to be feared.”

 

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