VATICAN CITY, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- Pope Benedict XVI called for an end to fighting in Syria and the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Jerusalem called Christmas the "birth" of Palestine.
"I appeal for an end to the bloodshed, easier access for the relief of refugees and the displaced," Benedict said during his Christmas message, known as the Urbi et Orbi.
Since an anti-government uprising in the country started in March 2011, about 45,000 people have died, the United Nations has estimated.
"May peace spring up for the people of Syria, deeply wounded and divided by a conflict which does not spare even the defenseless and reaps innocent victims," the pope said.
Midnight Mass in Vatican City was held two hours early at St. Peter's Square to avoid tiring the 85-year-old pope, the BBC reported.
In Bethlehem, Fouad Twal, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, said Christmas "is also a celebration of ... the birth of the state of Palestine."
Twal alluded to the U.N. recognition of the Palestinian Authority as an independent sovereign state, Arutz Sheva reported. In November, the United Nations passed a resolution granting Palestine the status of a non-member observer state, similar to that of the Vatican.
Syrian opposition says chemicals used
DAMASCUS, Syria, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- Syrian opposition groups say they have documented 18 incidents in which the regime has used chemical weapons.
Quoting unnamed opposition elements in Syria, Israel Radio said Tuesday chemical weapons were used in the Damascus, Idlib, Homs and Hama areas, and are of a kind of gas not known to be in the regime's chemical weapons supply. The report said no international body has been able to certify the claims.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon told Army Radio Israel is unable to confirm the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
"We do not have confirmation or proof that chemicals weapons have already been used," he said.
The Russian embassy in Damascus said it is checking the reports, the Voice of Russia and the Interfax news agency said.
Embassy spokesman Sergei Markov was quoted as saying the embassy "hasn't received any reports of this kind. We are looking into this information."
Policeman injured in protests dies
NEW DELHI, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- An Indian policeman, injured in protests related to the gang rape of a New Delhi student, died Tuesday, police said.
Subhash Chand Tomar, 47, was injured Sunday when the continuing protests over the Dec. 16 gang rape of the 23-year-old woman in a moving bus turned violent. The condition of the rape victim, who was critically injured by six rapists, had deteriorated Monday night, her doctors said. Her condition was described as being "very serious and very critical."
Thousands of protesters in New Delhi have been demonstrating at the sprawling India Gate war memorial area since the rape, forcing authorities to virtually shutdown several areas of the Indian capital.
Tomar had been on ventilator after he was admitted to the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Snowboarder killed by avalanche in Sierras
TRUCKEE, Calif., Dec. 25 (UPI) -- A body found Monday under 2 feet of snow in California is believed to be that of a snowboarder who vanished during an avalanche, authorities said.
The avalanche hit a skiing and snowboarding area at the Donner Ski Ranch near Lake Tahoe in the Sierras at about 9:30 a.m., KXTV in Sacramento reported. An employee said a skier reported a friend had disappeared while snowboarding in the area.
Four hours after the avalanche, a dog belonging to the ski patrol identified what turned out to be the place where the missing man was buried. His body was under 2 to 3 feet of snow.
Nevada County Sheriff's Sgt. Bob Jakobs said the identity of the man would not be released until family had been notified.
Actor Charles Durning dies at 89
NEW YORK, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- U.S. actor Charles Durning died of natural causes in New York. He was 89.
With two Oscar nominations for a supporting role, including "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "To Be or Not to Be," Though not a household name, Durning appeared in numerous theater productions, movies and television films, The New York Times said.
He was the crooked cop in the 1973 movie "The Sting," a dedicated assistant football coach in "North Dallas Forty," and a power broker in "True Confessions."
He could play gruff, funny, combative or gentle, the newspaper said.
Durning had numerous television credits and received nine Emmy nominations but never won.