Soldiers and police outnumbered pilgrims and tourists in strike-bound Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, where all but religious celebrations were canceled because of the Arab uprising against Israeli occupation.

Under heavy security, worshipers filled Saint Catherine's Church to celebrate midnight Mass in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town where Jesus Christ was born, but many would-be pilgrims stayed away.In Rome, Pope John Paul II made an emotional plea Tuesday for the "tormented nations of the Middle East" and prayed for a peaceful solution to the dangerous gulf crisis as he addressed the world from the Vatican's central balcony.

Speaking to a crowd of up to 100,000 on a chilly, rainy morning in the Eternal City, the pontiff also delivered a message of hope to the newly democratic nations of the former communist Eastern Europe, defended the rights of Palestinians and sent the world holiday greetings in 52 languages.

"The light of Christ is with the tormented nations of the Middle East," John Paul said as he spoke from the central balcony of St. Peter's. "For the area of the gulf we await with trepidation for the threat of conflict to disappear.

"May leaders be convinced that war is an adventure with no return."

Dressed in gold and white robes, the pope formulated his own recipe for saving the region from a bloody conflict:

"By reasoning, patience and dialogue, with the respect for the inalienable rights of peoples and nations, it is possible to identify and travel the paths of understanding and peace," John Paul said.

The pope said that the Holy Land "has been awaiting this peace for years: a peaceful solution to the whole question which concerns it, a solution which takes into account the legitimate expectations of the Palestinian people and of the people who live in the state of Israel."

In Bethlehem, a Palestinian town of 35,000, only a few hundred visitors assembled in Manger Square, braving a bitter, damp wind to hear two choirs perform before Mass.

"Before the intifada (Palestinian uprising) we used to have 12 or 14 choirs, most of them from abroad," said town clerk Jamal Salman. Last year there were five.

Church leaders in the Holy Land, many of them Palestinians, canceled all but religious celebrations because of the intifada, in which more than 1,000 Arabs have been killed, more than 700 of them by Israelis.

Soldiers with automatic rifles crouched on rooftops, and others searched people entering the town square with metal detectors.

Private cars and taxis were barred. Israeli-organized shuttle buses for tourists from Jerusalem ran almost empty.

"This is depressing," said Gabi Schutz, one of the few tourists to visit the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity, originally built in the fourth century by the Byzantine emperor Constantine.

"We knew security was a problem but we were surprised by the numbers of military and police," said Schutz who is from Germany.

The army declined to say how many reinforcements had been deployed to prevent the stone-throwing and protests which have marked the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising.

The uprising's underground leaders ordered all shops in the town closed to prevent what they called Israeli attempts to show TV viewers worldwide that all was normal.

In London, Queen Elizabeth II thanked the multinational forces in the gulf for "resisting the bully and the tyrant." She also condemned attacks by the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, where 75 people have died this year.

Germans marked their first Christmas since unification with a gesture of friendship to the Soviet Union. Money was collected to help ease the Soviet food shortage, and some people in former East Germany invited Red Army soldiers over.

Dramatic changes also were celebrated in Albania, where a 23-year-old ban on religion was lifted in November. Roman Catholic priest Simon Jubani, who was jailed eight times by the former Stalinist regime, led Christmas Mass in a rundown chapel the northern city of Shkodra.

In state-controlled churches in China, worshipers and the curious joined in prayer and song. For many in China, an officially atheist country, Christmas is viewed as an exotic foreign holiday. But department stores and hotels often feature Christmas themes.