Pope leads prayers as world celebrates Easter

zyoa.jpgVATICAN CITY (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI sought to assuage the grief of Italy’s earthquake survivors during his Easter blessing on Sunday as Christians across the world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims filled St Peter’s Square as Benedict — fresh from a controversial first trip to Africa as pontiff — issued an appeal for peace in that continent and in the Middle East, ahead of a trip to Israel and Jordan next month.

Elsewhere, pilgrims flocked to the spot where Jesus is believed to have been resurrected in Jerusalem after his crucifixion on Good Friday, while Christians celebrated Easter in war-torn countries such as Iraq.

However, priests and activists maintained that 60 years of government repression of those loyal to the pope shows no sign of easing in China, where an “underground” church remains illegal.


Under an overcast Vatican sky, Benedict delivered a message to the survivors of the earthquake that killed nearly 300 people in the Abruzzo region last week as he addressed Easter greetings to Catholics around the world in 63 languages.

“Happy Easter to you, men and women of Italy, in particular those who suffer because of the earthquake. May the risen Christ… inspire in all the necessary wisdom and courage to proceed united in the building of a future open to hope,” he said in Italian.

Benedict had sent chocolate eggs to children living in tent camps in the quake-devastated Abruzzo capital of L’Aquila, where Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attended Easter mass.

The pontiff also said reconciliation among rival factions in the Middle East was “difficult, but indispensable” while appealing for peace in Africa.

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

Benedict provoked controversy en route to Africa last month when he said the use of condoms could aggravate the spread of AIDS there.

Christian pilgrims from across the globe filled every nook of the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, considered by most Christians as their holiest site.

The smell of incense and the hum of prayers filled the air as the pilgrims glimpsed Christianity’s most revered sites — the place where Jesus was crucified by the Romans, the slab of stone where his body was laid afterwards and embraced by his mother — and the tomb where he was buried and resurrected.

In Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqi Christians marked Easter in a country where thousands of the religion’s followers have fled the majority Muslim nation since the 2003 US-led invasion.

According to Christian leaders, 250,000 of the 800,000 Christians who lived in Iraq before the invasion six years ago that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, have now left the country. Christians make up three percent of the population.

China has millions of Catholics who either attend mass at official churches overseen by the communist government, or who are part of illegal, “underground” congregations.

Loyal to the Pope, the latter run the risk of being questioned, beaten and even imprisoned, according to critics.

“The situation is going from bad to worse,” said Joseph Kung of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a US-based Catholic activist group.

In a case raised by the Vatican, underground bishop Jia Zhiguo has been in detention since March 30 in the northern province of Hebei.

Meanwhile, a Swedish church unveiled a life-sized statue of Jesus made up of nearly 30,000 Lego bricks donated by churchgoers, pastor Per Wilder of the Oensta Gryta Church in Vaesteras, about 110 kilometres (70 miles) west of Stockholm, told AFP.

And New York Archbishop Edward Egan officiated at his last Easter Mass before his retirement, sending a message of hope from the United States to the world.

“Today my prayer for all of us is that we listen to the message of Easter,” said 77-year-old Egan, who will be replaced Wednesday as head of the key New York archdiocese by Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan.