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Queen Elizabeth's Televised Christmas Message; Pope Delivers "Urbi et Orbi" Message; Iraq Set to Liberate Mosul from ISIS; Former U.S. Embassy Hostages in Iran Finally Compensated; Taliban Deny Cooperating with Russia to Fight ISIS; At Least 14 Dead in U.S. Severe Weather; Iraqi Christian Refugees Find Shelter in Turkey. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 25, 2015 - 10:00   ET




ZAIN ASHER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to the INTERNATIONAL DESK. And a warm and merry Christmas wherever you may be around the world. I'm Zain Asher.

World leaders are delivering Christmas messages. Pope Francis gave the annual "Urbi et Orbi" blessing at the Vatican just a short time ago. He

called on countries to welcome refugees and migrants. He expressed hope for African countries wracked by conflict and urged Israelis and

Palestinians to resume dialogue as well.

And the Queen Elizabeth's televised Christmas message is being broadcast right now in the United Kingdom. Let's listen in.


ASHER (voice-over): And this is a longstanding tradition; every year Queen Elizabeth speaks. It's 3:00 in the afternoon in the United Kingdom. She's

expected to talk about the fact that light can really triumph over darkness.

She will note that in 2015 there has been moments of darkness around the world, particularly when it comes to extremism, the migrant crisis. But

she says the Bible can offer solace and can offer hope. That's what she's expected to talk about in this Christmas message.

She will be using passages from the Bible as well, particularly quoting a passage from John, basically saying that the light shines in the darkness

and the darkness has not overcome it.

This is what she's expected to talk about. The 89-year-old Queen pretty much writes this speech herself every year and she reflects her own

personal beliefs, really stressing the importance of family.

And we're told that she will be noting that it is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In fact, earlier today the Queen and other royals

-- let's listen to her. Here she is.

QUEEN ELIZABETH, MONARCH OF GREAT BRITAIN: Few sights evoke more feelings of cheer and goodwill than the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree.

The popularity of a tree at Christmas is due in part to my great-great grandparents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. After this touching

picture was published, many families wanted a Christmas tree of their own, and the custom soon spread.

In 1949, I spent Christmas in Malta as a newly married naval wife. We have returned to that island over the years, including last month for a meeting

of Commonwealth leaders; and this year I met another group of leaders: The Queen's Young Leaders, an inspirational group, each of them a symbol of

hope in their own Commonwealth communities.

Gathering 'round the tree gives us a chance to think about the year ahead - - I am looking forward to a busy 2016, though I have been warned I may have "Happy Birthday" sung to me more than once or twice.

It also allows us to reflect on the year that has passed, as we think of those who are far away or no longer with us.

ASHER (voice-over): OK. That was just a portion there of the Queen's annual Christmas message that she's written herself, talking about --

basically reflecting on family time, the time around the Christmas tree really gives you a chance to think about the year ahead. We'll have a

little bit more on what she said a little bit later on in the show.

In the meantime, just hours ago, the pope delivered his Christmas message, calling for peace around the world. CNN's senior Vatican analyst John

Allen has more now from Rome.


JOHN ALLEN, CNN SR. VATICAN ANALYST: Pope Francis today delivered the traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" message, that's a message directed to

the city, meaning Rome and also to the world.

Now popes traditionally use this platform to issue a kind of 360-degree review of the global situation and that's very much what Pope Francis did


The top note was a strong plea for peace in a series of global hotspots. The pontiff mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war going on in

Syria. He talked about Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine; also called for a breakthrough in the peace talks in Colombia, currently

aiming to try to end the world's longest running civil war.

And these are all, of course, situations in which the pontiff has been --


ALLEN: -- personally involved, either out front or behind the scenes. As Europe grapples with the most significant refugee crisis it has faced since

the Second World War, the pope also issued a strong note of solidarity with migrants and refugees calling for compassion for people fleeing violence

and conflict and calling on host nations to be generous in receiving and integrating them.

The pope also, in the context of a year in which terrorism has been one of the major themes around the world, denounced what he called brutal acts of

terror, including the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

He ticked off a series of other social ills that kind of occupy his heart. He talked about child soldiers. He talked about unemployment, trafficking

in human persons. And in the context of a special Jubilee Year of Mercy that he's decreed for 2016, he also issued a strong plea, a special dose of

mercy for prisoners. Visiting prisoners has been one of the hallmarks of his papacy.

So essentially what you saw today was a pontiff who very much aspires to be a peace pope, using the visibility afforded by one of the holiest days on

the Christian calendar to try to raise his voice around the world in defense of peace and of human dignity. And that was very much the story

from Rome here on Christmas Day 2015.


ASHER: John Allen there, speaking on the pope's Christmas message earlier on.

Now it could be a sign of improved relations between two rival countries. India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, made an unannounced trip to Pakistan

for talks with the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. They agreed to establish, quote, "good neighborly relations." Here's our Sumnima Udas

with more.


SUMNIMA UDAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anytime the prime ministers of India and Pakistan meet it becomes significant. The two countries have been arch

rivals since independence nearly 70 years ago.

But India prime minister Narendra Modi's visit to Lahore is getting particular notice. It was a surprise layover after a visit to Kabul. It's

the first time an Indian prime minister has visited Pakistan in almost 12 years.

Modi's visit with his Pakistani counterpart was brief. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif welcomed Modi at the airport. They exchanged

pleasantries over tea at Sharif's ancestral home. It also happens to be Sharif's birthday.

But is this all symbolism or is there anything more to it?

That's what many people are asking today. Relations between Pakistan and India have been tense for the past few years. The two sides weren't even

talking and cross-border skirmishes have been routine. Contentious issues, like terrorism and the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir remain.

But political commentators in India say there appears to be a shift in prime minister Modi's foreign policy, vis-a-vis Pakistan. On the sidelines

of COP 21 in Paris this image of Modi and Sharif talking created a lot of buzz. It was just a 2-minute meeting but it symbolized a perceived thaw in

relations. Whether there is anything beyond the optics is still to be seen. But many analysts say this impromptu meet is a step in the right

direction -- Sumnima Udas, CNN, New Delhi.


ASHER: Iraqi military says its soldiers are days away from liberating Ramadi from ISIS. Let's get more on the battle now. Pentagon

correspondent Barbara Starr joins me live.

So, Barbara, as soon as Ramadi is secure, will the Iraqi army have enough resources immediately then work on taking back Mosul?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you point out, Zain, first getting Ramadi secure, still a very tall order. They are making

progress. They are moving towards the center of the city. But as we've discussed, taking Ramadi back from ISIS is just the first step.

The Iraqis have to be able to hold onto it. There is a so-called holding force of Sunni tribal fighters, preparing to go into Ramadi to do that,

fighters trained by the U.S. But all of this still really to come.

Just in the last several hours, the U.S.-led airstrikes destroyed seven houses in Ramadi that were wired with IEDs and explosives.

So let's say they do get it back. The next step would be Mosul. That, too, a very tall order. Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, of course, in

the north, ISIS has had that in its grip for some time now. So it's going to be a matter of being able to hold onto what you've got and then move


The U.S. is there to help the Iraqis. The Iraqis certainly taking advantage of the training they've gotten from the U.S. But I think many

experts will say there's still a very long way to go. If they succeed, it is a big strategic blow to ISIS. ISIS loses a big chunk of Iraq and Iraq

gets a big chunk of its territory back -- Zain.

ASHER: And, Barbara, talk to us a little bit about how the U.S. is providing assistance to the Iraqi army because it was only about seven

months ago that the --


ASHER: -- Iraqi army actually lost Ramadi to ISIS. And that, as you remember, Barbara, was hugely embarrassing for the Iraqis.

So how has the U.S. helped to really prep the Iraqi army since then?

STARR: Well, one of the things that's been happening very quietly behind the scenes in this U.S. training effort is much stepped-up training and

providing of technology and systems to help the Iraqis get through those ISIS fields of IEDs, bombs, explosives, wired houses.

ISIS has really dug in. There are even a network of tunnels in and around Ramadi that ISIS fighters move through. This is something that was a big

psychological fear, perhaps, to some Iraqi forces. And they were not very well led, it's acknowledged, back in May when they ran from the initial


Now the training, the hope is, it is having its impact of making them much more able to deal with all of that -- Zain.

ASHER: All right. In the meantime, ISIS still controls about 30 percent of territory in Ramadi. We'll see what happens. It looks like the battle

is progressing positively.

OK. Barbara Starr live for us. Thank you so much.

STARR: Sure.

ASHER: It's storms, not snow, causing problems in the U.S. on this Christmas day. We'll look at the damage to the Southern states after

tornadoes kill more than a dozen people.

And celebrating Christmas far from their homeland. Refugee families find a safe place to worship in Turkey. That's coming up.




ASHER: They've waited nearly four decades. But now Americans taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran will finally receive financial

compensation for their ordeal. These are the scenes right here that --


ASHER: -- greeted the 53 former hostages as they arrived back home, ending that 444-day ordeal that started way back in November 1979.

A budget bill passed in the U.S. Congress provides each of the surviving hostages and families or their estates $4.4 million. A lawyer for the

former hostages says that the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran helped pave the way for the compensation package.

The Taliban deny a claim they've been cooperating with Russia in the fight against ISIS. Earlier this week the Kremlin said the Taliban exchanged

intelligence and information on ISIS. CNN's Robyn Kriel has been following the developments from London.

So, Robyn, this is quite interesting. So you have got the Taliban denying that they've had any contact with the Russians. Obviously, Russia is

saying the opposite.

But given that the Taliban is so fractured right and so divided right now with so many different branches, how do we know what is true and what


ROBYN KRIEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Zain. And just days ago, the Taliban's supreme leader was rumored to have been injured in a shootout

between rival factions in Quetta, Pakistan. So you never really know exactly who might be talking to the Russians and who isn't.

But there is the danger that the Taliban would simply become more volatile and dangerous with these fractures and perhaps you could even see things

like defections from the Taliban to ISIS, the sort of new kid on the block; 3,000 ISIS fighters already believed to be inside Afghanistan.

It would present a problem for both the U.S. and Russia, those fighting the Islamic State, as well as the Taliban on the ground, who looks to more

recruits and does not want a rival faction in their country, fighting a war against them and others. So this would be a huge problem.

And, yes, as you say, huge fractures within the Taliban. We're not sure exactly, perhaps there is one part that is talking to Russia and another

faction who is denying talking to Russia at all, saying they do not need another country's help in fighting ISIS.

ASHER: Yes, so many divisions within the Taliban, it's hard to know what's true and what isn't. OK, Robyn Kriel live for us there in London, thank

you so much. Merry Christmas, by the way.

Nigeria's president confirms dozens are dead after a gas tanker truck exploded. It happened in the city of Nnewi in the country's southeast.

People were lining up to buy cooking gas on Christmas Eve. It's not entirely clear, though, what caused the tanker to explode.

Fourteen people have died in severe weather across parts of the United States. Most of the damage was caused by more than a dozen tornadoes that

tore through the South. Here is our Nick Valencia with more.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This Christmas, scenes of devastation in parts of the South and Midwest. Heavy rain causing

widespread flooding across North Georgia and tornadoes tearing across several states.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Started hearing a real loud roar, just started getting louder and louder. And I told her, I said, we need to get in the house


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It sounded literally like a freight train sounding of the horn. And it was coming.

VALENCIA (voice-over): In Ashland, Mississippi, all that's left of Teresa McKay's (ph) home is the porch. She and her husband were inside when they

saw the tornado coming. They ran and hid in this truck.

TERESA MCKAY, TORNADO SURVIVOR: Nothing left of my house. Not one thing. Nothing but all that debris.

VALENCIA (voice-over): This building may have saved Tony Goodwin's life when a tornado hit Perry County, Tennessee.

TONY GOODWIN, TORNADO SURVIVOR: I had my grandson in my arm, under my arm. And everybody got in except for my sister-in-law and I'm yelling at her,

come on, you know. And she got in. And as soon as she did, I shut the door.

VALENCIA (voice-over): The tornado knocked his house off its foundation but he and six others survived by taking cover in the storm shelter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You will never know how important it is to seek shelter immediately however you can, because it's a life saver.

VALENCIA (voice-over): Two of those killed in Tennessee were husband and wife, Ann and Antonio Yzaguirre. According to the Storm Prediction Center,

at least 14 tornadoes hit Mississippi on Wednesday. But a single twister did most of the damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a miracle. There's no way that three individuals were in this house at this time and they were able to walk


VALENCIA (voice-over): Communities coming together, thankful to be alive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I went and brought toys for kids because I also have a little girl. And for them not to have Christmas and toys and stuff,

there's -- it's not a holiday.

VALENCIA (voice-over): Nick Valencia, CNN, Atlanta.


ASHER: Some heartbreaking images there.

Time for a quick break. Coming up next at the IDESK:


ASHER (voice-over): -- the sounds of the season from Turkey. Iraqi Christian refugees celebrate Christmas far from their homeland. That's

coming up.





ASHER: They have no church but a group of Christians that fled their homeland in Iraq for the safety of Turkey are just thankful to be alive

right now. Senior international correspondent Sara Sidner joins me live now from New York.

So, Sara, this Christmas for them is really bittersweet because, yes, they have their safety now but their entire lives have really been turned upside

down by this conflict.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. It is really heartbreaking to see what they have gone through and what they still go through, their

families torn apart; they're separated. Sometimes they don't know where family members are.

But they have, Zain, managed to make Christmas this year in a land about 2,000 miles from their home.



SIDNER (voice-over): A Christmas celebration in a land that is not their own. They fled for their lives fearing death, but nothing could kill their


Nearly 2,000 miles from Mosul, Iraq, where ISIS murderers have tormented their people, including their Muslim neighbors, these Christian refugees

have found a place to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior.

"My last Christmas was in my family's house. It was me, my mom and dad and my brother. We were all together. And we hope to be united as one family

in one place just once more," she says.

But, for now, they're refugees in Istanbul, Turkey, praying and singing, a family torn apart.

They sing Christmas carols in old wedding hall that has been converted into a church for Christmas. They grieve for their losses but pray for their

homeland, hoping one day to return to Iraq as proud Christians with no fear of reprisals simply because of their faith.

They come from one of the oldest, longest-standing Christian communities in the world, but even their priest had to flee his church there.

"What gives us patience, solace and hope is the words from the holy book --


SIDNER (voice-over): " -- the Bible," he says.

"The Lord said, 'You will face persecution, but take courage. I conquered the world.'"

Christianity is under siege in the very region where it was born.

Iraq's Christian population used to be about 1.5 million a decade ago. Now, only about half remain. Syria is even worse. Of the 1.1 million

Syrian Christians who once lived in the country, about 600,000 have fled.

In the Middle East, they call themselves by many names -- Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans -- but they are all Christians.

JOHNSON RAZGIN, REFUGEE: It's a sad truth to be far away from our country. It's sad to be far away from our neighbors, from our friends, from our

families. It's not easy.

But anyhow, something is better than nothing. And thanks for God that we have a priest here, that we're gathering here and we will celebrate. I

hope everything could be OK.

SIDNER (voice-over): On this day, these Christians humbly offer their thanks, grateful that they have survived to celebrate one of the most

joyous days on the Christian calendar.


SIDNER: And as we mentioned, hundreds of thousands of Christians from the Middle East, they talk about the fact that they're worried that

Christianity will be moved out of the Middle East completely because so many Christians are fleeing.

But when we asked some of the refugees if that is exactly what they thought was happening, they said, you know, it will never die there. We will go

back but we have to feel safe in our homeland -- Zain.

ASHER: Absolutely. Really touching piece. Makes you so grateful for what you have.

Speaking of which, Merry Christmas, Sara. Hope you have a great day. Thank you.

And that does it for us at the INTERNATIONAL DESK. I'm Zain Asher. "AMANPOUR" is up next after a quick look at your headlines. I'll be back

in just a moment.