The Catholic pontiff, Pope Francis is celebrating his 81 years on earth and tens of thousands of people, many of them children, entertained him even as he appealed for the release of Catholic nuns kidnapped last month in Nigeria.

The six Roman Catholic nuns were kidnapped from their convent in the town of Iguoriakhi, Edo State Nigeria, last month.

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Francis appealed for their release and said he hoped they and all other victims of kidnappings could be home for Christmas.

The crowd sang Happy Birthday in Italian as the pontiff appeared at the window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square for his weekly message and blessing.

The first Latin American pope was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on December 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The former cardinal of the Argentine capital became leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in 2013.

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In keeping with a long-standing tradition in Rome, the children faced the pope’s window and held up small statues of the baby Jesus for him to bless. The statues are placed in home nativity scenes, a custom still practised in many Italian families.

Francis, who has often warned against excessive materialism during the holiday season, departed from his address to say: “This is the real Christmas. If we remove Jesus, what is left? An empty feast".

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