Pope Francis likened the plight of Iraqi refugees to that of Jesus, in a telephone call made shortly before he celebrated midnight mass at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, where he called for more “tenderness” and “warmth” in the world. 

Speaking to Iraqi refugees in a camp in Ankawa, in a call that was broadcast on Italian television, Francis spoke of “innocent children, children who have died, exploited children ... I am thinking, too, about grandparents, about the older people who have lived their lives, and who must now bear this cross," he said, according to a BBC report. On Christmas Day, Francis will deliver the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter's Square to the world, according to Reuters

Refugees in the Ankawa camp are mostly Christians, fleeing the spreading influence of the Islamic State group. According to an Associated Press report, Francis urged the displaced to remain in the region, to help their fellow citizens accept “a more authentic image of Islam” that is peaceful. On a visit to Turkey last month, the pontiff had condemned the “barbaric violence” of ISIS, and urged interfaith dialogue to counter the rising threat of extremism around the world.

In his midnight mass address, Francis asked: “Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us?” He added: "Or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today.”

The Pope's speech comes as thousands of Christians flocked to Bethlehem, following a tumultuous year in the region, according to NBC News. The town has huge religious significance for Christians, who believe that Jesus was born there.

Pope Francis, who is seen as having ushered in a new era of comparative liberalism at the Vatican, also ushered in a new first this Christmas Eve, with the Vatican midnight mass celebration being broadcast in 3D for the first time, according to an Agence France-Presse report