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Christians across the region marked the holiday.

In Iraq, Christians gathered for services with tight security, including at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, the scene of a brutal October 2010 attack that killed more than 50 worshippers and wounded scores more.

Earlier this month, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who is responsible for the Vatican’s outreach to the Middle East’s Catholic communities, traveled to Iraq and presided over a Mass to rededicate the church following renovations. In his homily, he remembered those who were killed and expressed hope that “the tears shed in this sacred place become the good seed of communion and witness and bear much fruit,” according to an account by Vatican Radio.

The exact number of Christians remaining in Iraq is not known, but it has fallen sharply from as many as 1.4 million before the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago to about 400,000 to 600,000, according community leaders cited by the U.S. State Department.

In the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI lit a Christmas peace candle set on the windowsill of his private studio.

Pilgrims, tourists and Romans gathered below in St. Peter’s Square for the inauguration Monday evening of a Nativity scene and cheered when the flame was lit.

Later, the pope led Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, prayed that Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and freedom, and asked the faithful to pray for strife-torn Syria as well as Lebanon and Iraq.

The ceremony began at 10 p.m. Rome time (4 p.m. EST) Monday with the blare of trumpets, meant to symbolize Christian joy over the news of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. The basilica’s main bell tolled outside, and the sweet voices of the Vatican’s boys’ choir wafted across the packed venue.

Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican traditionally began at midnight, but the start time was moved up years ago so as to give the 85-year-old pontiff more time to rest before his Christmas Day speech. That address was to be delivered at midday Tuesday from the basilica’s central balcony.

• Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Baghdad and Frances D’Emilio in Vatican City contributed to this article.