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VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis on Monday deplored the desperate humanitarian situation of Palestinians in Gaza and called for an immediate ceasefire and the freeing of hostages in his Christmas message.

“My heart grieves for the victims of the abominable attack of 7 October, and I reiterate my urgent appeal for the liberation of those still being held hostage,” the 86-year-old said in his traditional Urbi et Orbi message.

“I plead for an end to the military operations with their appalling harvest of innocent civilian victims, and call for a solution to the desperate humanitarian situation by an opening to the provision of humanitarian aid,” he told thousands of faithful gathered in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Nearly three months after the start of the war between Israel and Hamas, the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is catastrophic according to the United Nations, with 85 percent of the population displaced.

Hamas, IJ reject giving up power in return for permanent ceasefire: Egyptian sources

The war began on October 7 when Hamas gunmen broke through Gaza’s militarised border and killed about 1,140 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Hamas also abducted about 250 people, 129 of whom remain in Gaza, according to the Israeli authorities.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel launched a relentless bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, where 20,424 people have been killed, mostly women and children, according to the latest toll from Gaza’s health ministry.

Israel controls access to Gaza and aid has been trickling in from Egypt. Last week Israel approved the delivery of aid via its Kerem Shalom crossing but it is hugely insufficient to meet the needs in the devastated territory.

The pope also called for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “through sincere and persevering dialogue between the parties, sustained by strong political will and the support of the international community”.

Desperation rising amid acute hunger at Gaza hospitals: WHO

In his Christmas Eve message late Sunday, the pontiff had called for peace in the Holy Land.

“Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world,” the pope said.

‘Peace for Ukraine’

The head of 1.3 Catholics in his address also evoked the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen saying he prayed “that political and social stability will soon be attained”.

Francis also said he implored “peace for Ukraine”, which is celebrating Christmas on December 25 for the first time, snubbing the traditional Orthodox date of January 7 feted in Russia.

“Let us renew our spiritual and human closeness to its embattled people, so that through the support of each of us, they may feel the concrete reality of God’s love,” he said.

The pontiff also urged peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been locked in a territorial conflict for decades, saying: “May it be advanced by the pursuit of humanitarian initiatives, by the return of refugees to their homes in legality and security, and by reciprocal respect for religious traditions and the places of worship of each community”.

Francis also touched on the “conflicts that trouble the region of the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Sudan, as well as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan”.

He said he hoped tensions on the Korean peninsula would be resolved “by undertaking processes of dialogue and reconciliation capable of creating the conditions for lasting peace”.

The Argentinian pontiff reserved his last words for the Americas, calling on “people of good will” to “devise suitable ways to resolve social and political conflicts, to combat forms of poverty that offend the dignity of persons, to reduce inequality and to address the troubling phenomenon of migration movements”.

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