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Europe on edge for Christmas after string of attacks in 2016

Security measures were heightened across Europe and beyond as Christians prepared to celebrate Christmas Eve in the shadow of terrorism. Germany’s capital, Berlin, was particularly on edge after last week’s truck attack.

Security was tight at many major European churches and cathedrals as worshippers gathered to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass on Saturday. In addition to heightened security across Germany, where last Monday’s attack in Berlin cast a long shadow over Christmas celebrations, other cities also beefed up security in a bid to ensure peaceful celebrations.

In France, 91,000 gendarmes and soldiers were deployed to guard public spaces including churches and markets. Italian police were also out in force, with concrete barricades erected around the historic Piazza del Duomo with Milan’s cathedral.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Berlin police said there would also be an increased presence of both uniformed and plainclothes  officers on the streets of the German capital over the Christmas holidays. Several hundred people attended Christmas Eve Mass at Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church – a mere stone’s throw away from the site of the Berlin Christmas market attack on December 19.

Tunisian asylum seeker Anis Amri reportedly drove a truck into the Christmas market that evening, resulting in 12 deaths and almost 50 wounded. The so-called “Islamic State” movement (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, after Amri had pledged his allegiance to the head of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

With 12 candles representing the fatalities at the church altar, the Lutheran church’s presiding bishop, Ulrike Trautwein, called on the congregation to refuse to answer recent events with hatred: “We are feeling more strongly this time what Christmas means. In this place, in this location, we wish nothing more than: ‘Lord, give us your peace,'” she said.

Religious leaders echo messages of hope

Other churches throughout Germany shared similar sentiments on Christmas Eve, as calls amassed to denounce terror and violence with messages of peace.

The chairman of the Council of Lutheran Churches in Germany (EKD), Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, said that Christmas provided an opportunity to counter the general sense of nervousness and petulance.

The German cardinal of the Catholic Church and chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Reinhard Marx, wrote that the “forces of evil” would only prevail if people allowed terrorism to paralyze their spirits.

Meanwhile, Aiman Mazyek, the head of the Central Council of Muslims, said that “we all, and religion in particular, represent reconciliation and are opposed to hate and violence.”

Rome on high alert

Pope Francis celebrated his fourth Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – also amid tightened security. Following the truck attack in Berlin and the Bastille Day lorry attack in Nice earlier this year, freight vehicle access to Rome was severely limited for the evening.

Military vehicles were also positioned at strategic points of access to the Vatican, and more than 1,000 police officers and 2,000 military personnel were reportedly deployed to the area to prevent any attempts at an attack in and around Rome. Visitors at St. Peter’s Basilica also underwent tight security checks before entering the basilica.

The Pope’s mass was broadcast around the world, with some of the prayers read in foreign languages – including Chinese, Arabic and Russian – as a sign representing the unifying nature of faith and the political themes of the present.

While the pontiff highlighted the plight of children suffering in the ongoing war in Syria, Aleppo’s Catholic minority gathered to celebrate its first Christmas Mass in five years at remains of the Old City’s Saint Elias Cathedral. In neighboring Iraq, Christians congregated at the fire-scarred Mar Shimoni church in Bartalla near Mosul for the first service since the town was retaken from the “Islamic State,” who had seized it in 2014.

On Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and The World) blessing to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.

Happy Birthday, Jesus

Security was also tight across Israel, where Christmas coincides this year with Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. The religious festivities come one day after a controversial UN resolution effectively banning Israel from expanding its settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Pilgrims gathered in Bethlehem for Christmas at the West Bank town’s Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. In the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, believed to be Jesus’ childhood home, more than 25,000 people took part in Christmas celebrations under heavy security precautions, police said.

Not a silent night

Despite these messages of hope and reconciliation, acts of violence and terror did not stop on Christmas Eve, as a blast ripped through a police car outside a Catholic church in the Philippines, wounding 13 people.

The explosion was aimed at churchgoers attending Christmas Eve masses at the Shrine of Santo Nino in the town of Midsayap.

Authorities did not immediately comment on who was responsible for the blast. No group has claimed responsibility. The Philippines’ government is involved in fighting several armed Muslim groups, particularly on the island of Mindanao, where the attack took place. Some of those groups have reportedly pledged allegiance to IS.

Meanwhile, a woman with dual French and Swiss nationality was reportedly kidnapped in Mali. There have been no claims of responsibility in that case; despite a peace agreement signed last year, regional jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda continue with an insurgency campaign in the North African nation.

ss/kl (dpa, AP, AFP, KNA, epd)

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