Pope delivers blessing after assault

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his traditional Christmas Day blessing, looking tired and unsteady but otherwise fine hours after being knocked down by a woman.

Pope Benedict XVI kneels in prayer during Christmas Mass in St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican yesterday.
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VATICAN CITY // Pope Benedict XVI delivered his traditional Christmas Day blessing today, looking tired and unsteady but otherwise fine hours after being knocked down by a woman who jumped the barrier at the start of Mass in St Peter's Basilica. The Vatican said the 82-year-old Benedict was unhurt in the fall and that his busy Christmas schedule would remain unchanged. French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, an 87-year-old Vatican diplomat, fractured his hip in the commotion and will be operated on at Rome's Gemelli hospital, Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi said.

Pope Benedict appeared a bit unsteady as he approached his chair on the loggia overlooking St Peter's Square to deliver his traditional Christmas blessing and was steadied by an attendant. But he then spread open his arms, blessed the crowd and delivered his "Urbi et Orbi" speech, Latin for "To the city and the world," without any problem. He followed with Christmas greetings in 65 different languages that drew sustained cheers and chants from the crowd. In the speech, the pope decried the effects of the world financial crisis, conflicts in the Holy Land and Africa, and the plight of the "tiny flock" of Christians in Iraq. "At times it is subject to violence and injustice, but it remains determined to make its own contribution to the building of a society opposed to the logic of conflict and the rejection of one's neighbour," he said.

Rev Lombardi identified the woman who toppled Benedict as Susanna Maiolo, 25, a Swiss-Italian national with psychiatric problems. He said Ms Maiolo, who was not armed, was taken to a clinic for necessary treatment. She was the same woman involved in a similar incident at last year's Midnight Mass, Vatican officials said. In that case, Ms Maiolo jumped the barricade but never managed to reach the pope and was quietly tackled by security. In both cases she wore a red sweatshirt.

During Thursday night's service, Ms Maiolo jumped the barricade and lunged for the pope as he processed down the aisle toward the altar. As security guards brought her down, she grabbed Pope Benedict's vestments and pulled him down with her, according to a witness's video. After a few seconds on the floor, Pope Benedict stood up with the help of attendants, put back on his miter and took hold of his staff, and continued to process down the aisle to the cheers of "Viva il Papa!" or "Long live the pope".

He continued to celebrate the Mass without incident. It was the first time a potential attacker came into direct contact with Benedict during his nearly five-year papacy. Security analysts have frequently warned the pope is too exposed in his public appearances. After getting up, Benedict, flanked by tense bodyguards, reached the basilica's main altar to start the Mass. The pope, who broke his right wrist in a fall this summer, appeared unharmed but somewhat shaken and leaned heavily on aides and an armrest as he sat down in his chair. Pope Benedict made no reference to the disturbance after the service started.

* AP