VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI is stunned by the wave of violence and intolerance toward Christians around the world, Italy's top churchman said Thursday at Epiphany services.
"Together with the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, we are stunned in the face of religious intolerance and so much violence, and we are asking ourselves, in sorrow: why?" said Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of Italy's bishops conference in an Epiphany homily in Genoa. Bagnasco, in his role at the influential Italian bishops body, works closely with the pontiff and other Vatican officials.
Christian Copts in Egypt, where a bomb outside a church on Jan. 1 killed 21 people, mark Christmas on Jan. 7, will flock to Christmas vigil services on Thursday evening. Other Orthodox Christians also celebrate Jesus' birth on Jan. 7.
Speaking from his studio window overlooking St. Peter's Square, Benedict told pilgrims and tourists he was offering heartfelt greeting and wishes to "the brothers and sisters of the Eastern churches who tomorrow will celebrate Holy Christmas."
He prayed that Christians would be "strengthened in faith, hope and charity" and that "comfort be given to communities that are suffering" — a reference to the wave of violence.
Deadly attacks on Christians also bloodied Christmas celebrations Dec. 25 in Nigeria and the Philippines. Catholics in Baghdad have been worshipping in a bloodstained basilica since an assault there last fall claimed 68 lives, including those of two priests.
Asking why "voices the chilling question that is rising from so many places on Earth," the Italian news agency ANSA quoted Bagnasco as saying in Genoa's cathedral.
Italian authorities said they were increasing security measures outside churches for Christmas services for the tiny Coptic minority in Rome, Milan and elsewhere in Italy.
"We feel bitterness and sorrow for what we suffered in Egypt," Coptic Orthodox Bishop Barnaba el Soryany, told Associated Press Television News. He add that while there will be a Mass, there will be no festivities. "How can we celebrate Christmas after all that happened in Egypt?" the bishop said, speaking at the Virgin Mary Coptic church in Rome.
Benedict earlier marked the Roman Catholic church's last major Christmas period holiday on Thursday by celebrating Epiphany Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. The feast day recalls the Gospel's account of the journey by the three kings or "wise men," guided by a star, to pay homage to the baby Jesus, and many faithful exchange gifts.
The pope noted that astronomers over the centuries have wondered about what kind of star was in the sky, including what he called in "interesting" theories, like one holding that a supernova explosion might have guided the kings. What's important to remember, Benedict said, was that the voyagers were "in search of the true light" of God.
Benedict reiterated long-held church teaching that God's design is behind the creation of the universe.
"The universe is not the result of chance, as some want to make us believe," the pope said in his homily. "Contemplating it (the universe), we are invited to read something profound in it -- the wisdom of the Creator, the inexhaustible imagination of God, his infinite love for us," Benedict said.
"We shouldn't let our minds be limited by theories that always only go so far and that, if we look carefully, aren't at all in contradiction with faith but do not succeed in explaining the ultimate sense of reality," the pope said, musing on the Gospel account of the wise men searching for Jesus shortly after his birth.