VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis issued a strident call in his Christmas day message to safeguard children who are victims “under our very eyes” of violence and trafficking, while also demanding an end to “brutal persecution” worldwide.

Killings and hostage-takings from the Middle East to Nigeria and elsewhere must stop, he said in his annual Christmas “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) message.

Denouncing conflicts in Ukraine and Libya, and noting last week’s deadly attack against a school in Pakistan, the pontiff also lamented the thousands of victims of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

“Truly there are so many tears this Christmas,” he said.

Delivering his second Christmas blessing, the popular Argentine pontiff, visibly moved and departing from his text, noted “the children massacred by bombardments, including where the son of God was born” and their “powerless silence that cries under the sword.”

Denouncing “indifference”, he explicitly condemned abortion, deploring the children “killed before seeing the light”.

“May Jesus save the vast numbers of children who are victims of violence, made objects of trade and trafficking, or forced to become soldiers.” “May he give comfort to the families of the children killed in Pakistan last week” referring to the 150 people, including 134 school-children, killed in Peshawar by the Taliban.

Speaking to a large crowd massed outside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the pope urged Ukrainians to “overcome tensions, conquer hatred and violence and set out on a new journey of fraternity and reconciliation”. He turned too to the violence wrought by Islamic State fundamentalists this year in Syria and Iraq.

“I ask him, the saviour of the world, to look upon our brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria, who for too long now have suffered the effects of ongoing conflict, and who, together with those belonging to other ethnic and religious groups, are suffering a brutal persecution.”

There were “too many displaced persons, exiles and refugees, adults and elderly, from this region and the whole world,” he said.

He called for peace in “the whole Middle East” and continued efforts towards “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians.

The pope too urged peace in Nigeria “where more blood is being shed”, as well as in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He noted the victims of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and thanked those who were “courageously” assisting the sick.

The Pope urged people not to be indifferent to the suffering of so many around the world. Pope Francis also appealed for an end to conflicts in African countries and urged dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

The 78-year-old pope spoke from the same balcony of St Peter’s Basilica where he first appeared as pontiff on the night of his election on March 13, 2013.

“May indifference be changed into closeness and rejection into hospitality, so that all who now are suffering may receive the necessary humanitarian help to overcome the rigours of winter, return to their countries and live with dignity,” he said, speaking in Italian.

On Christmas eve, Francis made a surprise telephone call to comfort Christian refugees in a camp in Ankawa, Iraq. “You are like Jesus on Christmas night. There was no room for him either ...” he told them.

The pope has a busy year ahead of him, with trips planned to Asia, Africa, Latin American and the United States.

Another key project for 2015 is the reform of the Curia, the Vatican’s central administration. In Christmas greetings on Monday to the Vatican’s top administrators, Pope Francis delivered a stinging critique of Vatican bureaucracy.

In his Christmas message, which was fairly brief, the pope traditionally calls for remedies to the world’s woes.

Francis however has put an end to a longstanding tradition of popes wishing a happy Christmas in dozens of languages.

At a Christmas Eve mass, he urged Roman Catholics to have greater empathy towards family and friends, saying the world needs “tenderness” and “warmth”.

Francis sent a video message to South Koreans recalling his trip to the country in August in which he said: “The great celebration in honour of the (Catholic) martyrs (in the 18th and 19th centuries in Korea), and the encounters with young people remain fresh in my memory.”

In Bethlehem on Christmas Eve hectic preparations preceded celebrations on the West Bank town’s biggest night of the year, culminating in midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity built over the spot where Christians believe the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Scouts playing bagpipes and drums marched to the church in a procession led by Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Catholic cleric in the Holy Land.

In his homily, Twal called for “peace in Jerusalem”, where violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians rocked the city for months, and “equality and mutual respect” among all faiths.

He also asked for the rebuilding of Gaza, which was ravaged this summer during a 50-day war between Hamas and Israel in which more than 2,200 people died.