VATICAN CITY -- Pope Benedict XVI urged loyal Catholics in China to have courage in the face of communist limits on religious freedom and conscience, a Christmas Day message highlighting the tensions between Beijing and the Vatican.

In Bethlehem, the largest number of pilgrims in a decade gathered to celebrate Christmas, with tens of thousands flocking to the Church of the Nativity for prayers. Violence in Nigeria and the Philippines left 11 dead and 6 injured, however, and fear in Iraq also marred the Christmas festivities.

Benedict used his traditional holiday speech, delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to tourists and pilgrims in the rain-soaked square, to encourage people living in the world's troublespots to take hope from the "comforting message" of Christmas. Those spots range from strife-torn Afghanistan to the volatile Korean peninsula to the Holy Land where Jesus was born -- and even to China.

In recent weeks, tensions have flared anew between the Vatican and Beijing over the Chinese goverment's defiance of the pope's authority to name bishops and its insistence that prelates loyal to Rome attend a gathering against their will to promote China's state-backed church.

"May the birth of the savior strengthen the spirit of faith, patience and courage of the faithful of the church in mainland China, that they may not lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience but, persevering in fidelity to Christ and his church, may keep alive the flame of hope," Benedict prayed aloud.

Benedict has repeatedly spoken out about the plight of Christians in Iraq, many of whom have fled their country to escape persecution and violence, including an attack on a Baghdad basilica during Mass. He prayed that Christmas would "ease the pain and bring consolation amid their trials to the beloved Christian communities in Iraq and in the Middle East."

"May the light of Christmas shine forth anew in the land where Jesus was born, and inspire Israelis and Palestinians to strive for a just and peaceful coexistence," Benedict said in his traditional "Urbi et Orbi" address (Latin for 'to the city and to the world').

Chinese church officials did not immediately comment late Saturday.

In Bethlehem, it was the busiest Christmas in years.

Over 100,000 pilgrims poured into the West Bank town since Christmas Eve, twice as many as last year, Israeli military officials said, calling that the highest number of holiday visitors in a decade. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

In Nigeria, at least 11 people were killed in multiple Christmas Eve blasts in the country's central region, where tensions often boil over between Christians and Muslims.

Gregory Yenlong, the Plateau State information commissioner, told The Associated Press that he counted 11 dead bodies at two sites rocked by bombs in Jos, a city long plagued by religious violence. He said no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Another bomb exploded during Christmas Day Mass at a police chapel in the volatile southern Philippines, wounding a priest and five churchgoers. The improvised explosive was hidden in the ceiling of the police camp chapel in Jolo on Jolo Island, a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked militants.

Christians also marked a somber Christmas in Baghdad in the face of repeated violence by militants intent on driving them out of Iraq. Archbishop Matti Shaba Matouka said he hoped Iraqi Christians would not flee the country.

Hundreds gathered at a Baghdad church where Muslim extremists in October took more than 120 people hostage in a standoff that ended with 68 dead. Church walls were pockmarked with bullet holes, plastic sheeting hung instead of glass windows and flecks of dried flesh and blood still speckled the ceiling.

After the siege, about 1,000 Christian families fled to the relative safety of northern Iraq, according to U.N. estimates.

"No matter how hard the storms blows, love will save us," Matouka told those gathered.

In Bethlehem, pilgrims and tourists posed for pictures and enjoyed the sunshine Saturday while others thronged the Church of the Nativity to attend Mass. Worshippers also packed the Roman Catholic church built next to the grotto where the traditional site of Jesus' birth is enshrined.

Pilgrims have slowly returned to Bethlehem in the last five years. The town's 2,750 hotel rooms were booked solid for Christmas week and more hotels are under construction. Only one-third of Bethlehem's 50,000 residents are Christian today, down from about 75 percent in the 1950s. The rest are Muslims.

"(It's) a really inspiring thing to be in the birthplace of Jesus at Christmas," said Greg Reihardt, 49, from Loveland, Colorado.

Palestinian tourism police chief Ziad Khatib said he hasn't seen this many Christmas visitors in 10 years.

"We have passed the bad years," he declared.

Still, visitors entering Bethlehem had to cross through a massive metal gate in the separation barrier that Israel built between Jerusalem and the town during a wave of Palestinian attacks in last decade.

Christians only make up about 2 percent of the population in the Holy Land today, compared to about 15 percent in 1950. The Roman Catholic Church's top clergyman in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, issued a conciliatory call for peace between religions during his Christmas Eve homily in Bethlehem.

"During this Christmas season, may the sound of the bells of our churches drown the noise of weapons in our wounded Middle East, calling all men to peace and the joy," he said.