Pope Francis speaks during a baptism ceremony in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Sunday. (Osservatore Romano/Reuters)

Pope Francis urged Europe on Monday to “find the right balance” between protecting its citizens and ensuring assistance and acceptance for the thousands of migrants reaching its shores, saying the continent should not lose its humanity in the face of the biggest migration in decades.

In a wide-ranging New Year’s speech to diplomats accredited to the Vatican, the pope admitted that the massive number of migrants arriving in Europe seems to be “overburdening the system of reception painstakingly built on the ashes of the Second World War.”

But he urged there be no “loss of the values and principles of humanity, respect for the dignity of every person, mutual subsidiarity and solidarity, however much they prove . . . a burden difficult to bear.”

The pope’s comments came as a group of Pakistanis and a Syrian were attacked in Cologne, Germany amid tensions over New Year’s Eve assaults in the city suspected of being committed by foreigners, news reports said Monday.

Six Pakistani nationals were attacked Sunday by a group of around 20 people and two of them were briefly admitted to a hospital, the Associated Press reported from Germany. Also Sunday evening, a Syrian man was attacked by five people.

At least 21 asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa are suspects in the New Year’s Eve rampage of sexual assaults and thefts in Cologne. Word also emerged of similar acts in Finland and Sweden as well as other German cities — including the alleged gang rape of two teenage girls by four Syrian men.

The New Year’s assaults have inflamed tensions over Germany’s open-door policy in the refu­gee crisis.

The pope acknowledged Europe’s concerns about security in the face of present-day terrorism and the changes the arrivals could bring in the “cultural and social structures” of the countries receiving them.

But he stressed that Europe “has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants.”

More than a million migrants arrived in Europe last year, many escaping violence in Syria and Iraq or poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Repeating themes he covered during his recent trip to Africa, the pope also said “one may never kill in the name of God.”

“Only a distorted ideological form of religion can think that justice is done in the name of the Almighty by deliberately slaughtering defenseless persons, as in the brutal terrorist attacks which occurred in recent months in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.”

He said “every authentic practice of religion cannot fail to promote peace.”

In his annual speech, the pontiff touched on every major world flash point — the Syrian civil war, the recent testing of a missile by North Korea, the tensions in the Persian Gulf, the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — beseeching all participants to be open “to the voice of peace” and to be ready “to seek agreements.”

He said there were some bright spots on the world horizon, however, mentioning recent elections in the Central African Republic, new initiatives in Cyprus to heal long-standing divisions there and efforts made by the Colombian people to leave past conflicts behind.

He also welcomed international steps to achieve a solution to the five-year-old Syrian civil war and the turmoil in Libya.

“On the other hand, it appears increasingly evident that only a common and agreed political action will prove able to stem the spread of extremism and fundamentalism, which spawn terrorist acts which reap countless victims, not only in Syria and Libya, but in other countries like Iraq and Yemen.”

Read more:

Today's coverage from Post correspondents around the world