VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis has urged the Catholic faithful to embrace the “light of Christ” to help end conflict and injustice around the world, during his Christmas Day address.

Speaking from the Vatican balcony under a clear blue sky on Wednesday, Pope prayed for people struck by war, political instability, natural disasters and disease among other hardships in his annual “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) message.

The traditional Christmas message has become an occasion for popes to address suffering in the world and press for solutions. Francis was flanked by Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, president of the papal council for migrants, and Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the Pope’s official almsgiver.

The 83-year-old pope listed several places - including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Venezuela and Ukraine - while calling for peace.

The Pope cited the Syrian people “who still see no end to the hostilities that have rent their country over the last decade’’ as well as Israel, where Jesus “was born as the savior of mankind and where so many people -- struggling but not discouraged -- still await a time of peace, security and prosperity.’’

Urges nations to tend to refugees

Francis also called for an easing of the crisis in Lebanon, social tensions in Iraq and “a grave humanitarian crisis’’ in Yemen.

He noted that a number of countries in the Americas “are experiencing a time of social and political upheaval,’’ citing “the beloved Venezuelan people, long tried by their political and social tensions.”

“There is darkness in human hearts, yet the light of Christ is greater still,” the Pope told thousands gathered in St Peter’s Square.

“There is darkness in personal, family and social relationships, but the light of Christ is greater. There is darkness in economic, geopolitical and ecological conflicts, yet greater still is the light of Christ,” he added.

The Pope also singled out those persecuted for their Christian faith “particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.”

In a speech that marked his seventh Christmas as pontiff, the Bishop of Rome also highlighted the plight of refugees and migrants. He said: “It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries. It is injustice that forces them to ensure unspeakable forms of abuse, enslavement of every kind and torture in inhumane detention camps. It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”

Francis concluded his address by urging his flock to “soften our often stony and self-centered hearts.”

“May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence.” the Pope added. “On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.

Earlier Wednesday, the pontiff made a rare joint appeal with other church leaders for peace in South Sudan. “In this Christmas season and at the beginning of a new year, we wish to extend to you and to all the people of South Sudan our best wishes for your peace and prosperity, and to assure you of our spiritual closeness as you strive for a swift implementation of the Peace Agreements,” said the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury and former moderator of the Church of Scotland in a statement.

In remarks widely interpreted as a reference to recent sexual abuse scandals involving the church, the pontiff said: “Whatever goes wrong in our lives, whatever doesn’t work in the Church, whatever problems there are in the world, will no longer serve as an excuse. It will become secondary, for faced with Jesus’ extravagant love, a love of utter meekness and closeness, we have no excuse.”

Earlier this month, Francis abolished Vatican secrecy rules for cases of sexual abuse, effectively allowing the Catholic church to share documents and information with civil authorities, and enable survivors to be updated of the status of their cases.