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Pope calls for peace amid concern over his security

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict called on the world to abandon violence and vengeance on Friday and showed no sign of strain after an “unstable” woman lunged at him, forcing him to the ground, on Christmas Eve.

In his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” message to the city and the world from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, the pope urged the world to rediscover the simplicity of the Christmas message and read Christmas greetings in 65 languages.

As the pope spoke to tens of thousands of people in the square below, the Vatican remained focussed on Thursday night’s incident, which raised again the question of how the pope can be protected while still having close contact with people.

Susanna Maiolo, 25, an Italian-Swiss national, shocked the Catholic world and Vatican security when she jumped over a barricade in the basilica, lunged at Pope Benedict, grabbed his vestments and caused him to fall to the marble floor.

The Vatican said she was “psychologically unstable” and unarmed and the pope was not hurt in any way. She was taken to an Italian hospital for psychological treatment.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said on Friday that it was impossible to provide watertight security for the pope because being close to people is part of his mission.

“It is impossible to prevent every possibility of something happening, even at close range,” Lombardi told reporters.

“The pope wants to have a direct, pastoral relationship with people where you can touch children, shake hands and do what you want to do and what the people want you to do,” Lombardi said.

“If you want watertight security you can’t do that. Being out of touch with people, being far from them, runs against the spirit of his mission so there will always be a risk,” he said.

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In his “Urbi et Orbi” message, the pope said today’s world had to rediscover the simplicity of the Christmas message.

People should “abandon every logic of violence and vengeance and engage with renewed vigour and generosity in the process which leads to peaceful coexistence.”

He said that while the world was currently steeped in a grave financial crisis, it was also affected “even more by a moral crisis, and by the painful wounds of wars and conflicts.”

Thursday’s incident took place as the 82-year-old pope, flanked by security men and bishops, was walking up the main aisle of the basilica to start a Christmas Eve mass.

Members of the congregation screamed as Maiolo, wearing a red, hooded sweatshirt, jumped the barrier and lunged at him.

French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, who has been in frail health recently, fell to the floor “in the confusion” and was taken away in a wheelchair. He suffered a broken femur and will have to undergo surgery but is not in serious condition.

The Vatican acknowledged that Maiolo had also tried to jump a barricade to reach the pope at last year’s Christmas Mass.

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“It’s surprising that it happened inside St Peter’s, because the security there has changed a great deal in recent years and is much more tight than it used to be,” the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, told the BBC.

“But there it is, I’m sure those arrangements will be reviewed and greater care will be taken,” he said.

There have been few security breaches in Benedict’s pontificate, which began in 2005. In 2007 a German man jumped over a barricade in St Peter’s Square as the pope’s jeep was passing during a general audience and tried to board the vehicle.

The most serious attack on a pope in the Vatican was in 1981 when Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca shot and nearly killed Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square.

While visitors to the basilica must pass through metal detectors and spot checks, security once they get inside is relatively light. Vatican security is shared by a police force and Swiss Guards.

Editing by Tim Pearce