Pope Francis' post-Christmas message honors modern-day Christian martyrs

Pope Francis honored modern-day Christian martyrs when he spoke to thousands of Catholic faithful in Saint Peter's Square the day after Christmas.

(REUTERS / Tony Gentile)Pope Francis kneels as he leads the Christmas night Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican December 24, 2016.

During the holiday blessing on the feast of the first Christian martyr St. Stephen, Pope Francis highlighted the situation of Middle East Christians who stood firm on their faith despite persecution by the Islamic State. The pontiff also noted that there are more martyred believers nowadays compared with the Church's earlier years, Reuters relays.

"This was an example of fidelity to the Gospel. Despite trials and dangers, they courageously show that they belong to Christ," said Pope Francis. "Today, we want to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayers and even our tears."

The pontiff also talked about the plight of Christians in Iraq, who were forced to flee after being told by the militants to convert to Islam, pay tax, or face death. For the first time since ISIS militants took over their hometowns in 2013, many of them were finally able to celebrate Christmas in their churches.

Pope Francis has been vocal about the martyrdom of Christians all over the world. After a deadly terror attack at the St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo earlier this month, the pontiff called for prayers and said the Church is "united in the blood of our martyrs," the National Catholic Register reports.

In a Sunday Angelus address merely hours after the Cairo church blast which killed 25 people and injured dozens, Pope Francis prayed for the victims. He also emphasized faith in God and unity as the only solution to these forms of violence.

Christians in Egypt have faced long-term persecution from Islamist extremists especially after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Four Coptic teens were given five-year prison terms in February over charges of insulting Islam, and two individuals were killed in a violent incident outside a church in April 2013.

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