Pope John Paul II celebrated Christmas with a prayer yesterday for "those who are suffering" in the world, particularly in his native Poland, and the bells of Rome's 500 churches rang to commemorate the birth of Jesus.

Nearly 50,000 people cheered and applauded as the pontiff read his traditional Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) message from the balcony over the main entrance of St. Peter's Basilica.

"We desire that the light of this night should reach, especially, those who are suffering, wherever they are on earth, whatever their misfortune may be," the pope said.

Then, speaking in Polish, he said, "I ardently wish all my brothers and sisters of Poland, particularly those who suffer and those who are separated from their loved ones, a new hope, a new light."

"In this difficult situation in our fatherland," the pope said, Christ's birth "should take on a particular meaning." He made no mention of Poland's outlawed Solidarity union, which the Roman Catholic Church strongly supported, or of the recent release of many union activists detained since the Dec. 13, 1981, military crackdown in Poland.

In Warsaw, Archbishop Jozef Glemp, Poland's Roman Catholic primate, praised at a Christmas mass the release of Poland's martial-law prisoners but deplored the fact that an unknown number remain in Polish jails.

"We share the joy of families whose loved ones have returned from internment," Glemp told about 2,000 people at St. John's cathedral. "But at the same time we share the grief of the families who still wait for their loved ones who have not yet regained freedom."

Earlier, a congregation composed largely of former internees packed a midnight mass at St. Martin's church in Warsaw's old town district. Many had not seen each other since martial law was imposed.

"It was a very moving experience for me to see these people, to greet them, especially since my own release came as a surprise," said Janusz Onyszkiewicz, the former spokesman of the banned Solidarity union, who was released Thursday after a year of internment.

In Bethlehem, pilgrims toured the town where Jesus was born, but the Christmas holiday was largely ignored in Israel, where Jews observed a quiet Sabbath.

Bethlehem's Manger Square, where thousands thronged on Christmas Eve to hear the televised mass and foreign choirs, returned to its use as a town parking lot.

Queen Elizabeth stirred political controversy in Britain yesterday with a Christmas message to the Commonwealth evoking Britain's historic supremacy at sea and saying the Falkland Islands war was fought for basic freedoms.

The message, recorded in advance, provoked left-wing protests even before it was broadcast.

An opposition member of Parliament appealed to the queen, who is traditionally above politics, to drop references to the conflict because they were politically controversial.

A communist newspaper, the Morning Star, said her message's "jingoism" marred the spirit of Christmas.

After a year that saw Britain's biggest clash of arms for a quarter of a century, the queen made an unusual number of military references.

She mentioned the military origin of Windsor Castle, west of London, where she and her family were spending Christmas. She recalled naval battles against Spain in the l6th century, France in the 17th and 18th and Germany in the 20th, saying Britain owed its independence to those victories.

"Earlier this year in the South Atlantic," the queen said, "the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy enabled our sailors, soldiers and airmen to go to the rescue of the Falkland Islanders 8,000 miles across the ocean and to reveal the professional skills and courage that could be called on in defense of basic freedoms."

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said the queen took personal responsibility for the wording of the Christmas message.

The British administrator of the Falkland Islands told residents in a Christmas message that Argentina could not seize the colony again.

"If Argentina contemplated a return to the Falklands then their ships would be sunk long before reaching the shores," Civil Commissioner Rex Hunt said. "They could not possibly invade by air or submarine." He said raids were possible, but Argentine forces mounting them would suffer heavy losses and Argentina would think twice before alienating world opinion.

In Buenos Aires, Argentines welcomed Christmas Day with a massive midnight salvo of rockets and other fireworks and the military ruler, Gen. Reynaldo Bignone, in a Christmas message told Argentines that the nation had achieved "internal peace which it does not want to lose." He sent a "special salute" to all Argentine families who had suffered a loss during the war and quoted the pope on the need for a dialogue between government and people, saying that the pope's words "could have been written for the current moment and situation in Argentina."

Thousands of French spent Christmas in bleak conditions after torrential rains caused widespread flooding, especially along the Charente, Saone and Loire rivers.