Pontiff’s message of reconciliation

Pope Benedict XVI appealed for reconciliation and peace in Africa and the Middle East during his Easter blessing as Christians across the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims filled St Peter’s Square at the Vatican yesterday for the pope’s traditional urbi et orbi (to the city and the world) message, amid a sombre holiday for Italians mourning nearly 300 people who died in an earthquake last week.

In Jerusalem, pilgrims flocked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where the resurrection of Jesus is believed to have taken place, while Christians celebrated Easter in war-torn countries such as Iraq.

The pope led a procession of cardinals and bishops across a St Peter’s Square decorated with springtime flowers and ascended red-carpeted steps to take his place before St Peter’s Basilica as Swiss Guards stood at attention.

From the steps of the basilica, Benedict addressed Easter greetings to Catholics around the world in 63 languages, and delivered a message to the survivors of the earthquake in the Abruzzo region.

“Happy Easter to you, men and women of Italy, in particular those who suffer because of the earthquake,” he said in Italian.

“May the risen Christ… inspire in all the necessary wisdom and courage to proceed united in the building of a future open to hope.”

The pontiff appealed for peace in Africa, and said that in the Middle East reconciliation among rival factions was “difficult, but indispensable”. Benedict plans to travel to Israel and Jordan next month.

“Reconciliation… is a condition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence, and it can be achieved only through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the pope said.

“Africa suffers disproportionately from the cruel and unending conflicts, often forgotten, that are causing so much bloodshed and destruction in several of her nations.”

In Africa, a “growing number of her sons and daughters fall prey to hunger, poverty and disease”, said Benedict. His first trip to the continent ended three weeks ago.

In Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqi Christians marked Easter. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 250 000 of the Muslim country’s 800 000 Christians have fled.

Father Boutros Hadad, of the Church of Mary the Virgin in Baghdad’s Karrada district, said Easter was a time to forgive sins.

“Our religion has taught us forgiveness and to forget the past and to turn a new page… The situation in Iraq has improved and that is a cause for optimism.” – Sapa-AFP