Christmas is an official holiday in Iraq for first time

BAGHDAD - Iraq's Christians, a scant minority in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, quietly celebrated Christmas on Thursday with a present from the government, which declared it an official holiday for the first time.

But security worries overshadowed the day for many, particularly in the north where thousands of Christians have fled to escape religious attacks.

Overall security in Iraq has improved markedly in the past year, but a fatal car bombing in Baghdad on Christmas morning was a gruesome reminder that serious problems remain.

Pope appeals for solidarity in tough economy

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI urged a world confronting a financial crisis, conflict, and increasing poverty not to lose hope at Christmas, but to join in 'authentic solidarity' to prevent global ruin.

His message of salvation amid growing concern about the economic meltdown facing rich and poor nations alike was echoed across the continent in London, where Britain's Queen Elizabeth II called for courage in response to the rough times.

Israel moves closer to Gaza invasion

JERUSALEM - Israel moved closer to invading Gaza, saying Thursday it had wrapped up preparations for a broad offensive after Palestinian militants fired about 100 rockets and mortar shells across the border in two days.

Israel's foreign minister brushed off a call for restraint from Egypt's president, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a direct appeal to Gaza's people to pressure their leaders to stop the barrages. But the attacks showed no signs of ending. By nightfall, three rockets and 15 mortar shells had exploded in Israel.

Germans save ship from Somali pirates

CAIRO, Egypt - A German military helicopter foiled an attempt by pirates to seize an Egyptian ship off the coast of Somalia on Thursday, swooping in to drive off the attackers after being alerted by a passing vessel.

The German success comes as more countries are sending warships to patrol off the chaotic Horn of Africa nation and the United States is pressing for more assertive action against pirates.

- From wire reports