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Pope condemns Nigeria attacks, prays for them to stop

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Monday condemned the Christmas Day bomb attacks by Islamist militants in Nigeria as an "absurd gesture" and prayed that "the hands of the violent be stopped."

The pope, speaking from his window overlooking St Peter's Square in Rome, said such violence brought only pain, destruction and death.

Militants of the Boko Haram sect said they had set off the bombs, raising fears that they are trying to ignite sectarian civil war. Three of the five bombs hit churches and one killed at least 27 people at a Catholic church.

"Holy Christmas inspires us in a particularly strong way to pray to God so that the hands of the violent are stopped, (hands) that sow death in the world ..." the pope said.

He said news of the bombings in Nigeria had brought him "profound sadness" and he wanted to assure Nigeria's Christian community, hit by "this absurd gesture," that he was close to them.

"At this moment, I want to repeat once more forcefully: violence is a path that leads only to pain, destruction and death. Respect, reconciliation and love are the only ways to achieve peace," he said.

He appealed to all sectors of Nigerian society to work together to rediscover security and tranquility.

The pope did not say that the attacks had been carried out by the Boko Haram, which aims to impose sharia, Islamic law, across Africa's most populous country.

But he has in the past firmly condemned the concept of violence in God's name.

Conflict between Christians and Muslims in the developing world, mostly in Asia and Africa, is one of the Vatican's greatest worries.

Clashes have also taken place in Egypt between Muslims and minority Coptic Christians, who have their own pope but have mostly good relations with Rome.

Last month the pope chose a visit to the African country of Benin to issue a document on the future of the Catholic Church on the continent because the Vatican considers Benin a model for good relations between Christians and Muslims.

In Nigeria, on the other hand, there is a growing fear that Boko Haram is trying to ignite a sectarian civil war in a country split evenly between Christians and Muslims who for the most part coexist in peace.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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