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Benedict spoke Sunday while visiting a parish in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. Italians are facing new and higher taxes as the country struggles with a government debt crisis.

The pope told parishioners he knows that Christmas will be “very difficult” but that he wanted to wish all happy holidays. Benedict said that preparing for Christmas “doesn’t only mean buying” gifts.

Later, greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, he said real joy is linked to something deeper.

GERMANY

Afghan troops to begin pulling out in February

BERLIN — Germany, which has 5,350 troops in Afghanistan, will withdraw 200 soldiers at the start of February, a German weekly reported Sunday.

Germany plans to whittle its forces in Afghanistan to 4,900 next year. The NATO-led forces are scheduled to be pulled out in 2014.

Berlin is drawing up plans for withdrawal, which will start Feb. 1 and involve 200 troops, Bild am Sonntag said without naming any sources.

Germany, which has the third-biggest force in Afghanistan, behind the United States and Britain, said at the start of this year that it aimed to begin pulling its military forces out, eyeing 2014 for complete withdrawal.

BULGARIA

EU’s poorest region teeters on the brink

YAKIMOVO — The bare fields, the empty roads, the ruined houses and the shuttered schools say it all.

Welcome to Bulgaria’s rural northwest, officially the poorest region in the European Union.

“There is almost no socioeconomic indicator on which this region does not come last, both in Bulgaria and the EU,” Deputy Regional Minister Nikolay Nankov said. “It’s not a rosy picture out there.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, the region saw massive industrialization, making goods solely for the communist-era Comecon market.

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