Pope overcomes health problems to preside over tempestuous Easter Sunday mass in St. Peter’s Square

Rome Italy –

Pope Francis recovered from a bout of respiratory problems he suffered over the winter to lead some 60,000 people in Easter celebrations on Sunday, calling strongly for a ceasefire in Gaza and a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. .

Francis presided over Easter Sunday Mass in a flower-decked St. Peter’s Square and then delivered a heartfelt prayer for peace in his annual overview of global crises.

“Peace is never achieved with weapons, but with outstretched hands and an open heart,” Francis said from the loggia overlooking the square, to the applause of the windswept crowd.

Francis appeared in good shape, despite having celebrated the two-and-a-half-hour nighttime Easter Vigil just hours earlier. The pontiff, who had part of his lung removed when he was young, has been battling respiratory problems all winter and his full participation in Easter services was not entirely guaranteed, especially after he skipped the traditional Easter procession. Holy Friday.

But in a sign that he was feeling well, he circled the square several times in his popemobile after Mass, greeting supporters.

The Vatican said about 60,000 people attended the mass, with more people filling the Via della Conciliazione boulevard leading to the square. At the beginning of the service, a gust of wind knocked down a large religious icon that was on the altar, a few meters from the Pope; The ushers quickly straightened him out.

The Easter Mass is one of the most important dates in the liturgical calendar and celebrates what the faithful believe was the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. The mass precedes the “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing, in which the Pope traditionally offers a long list of the threats that afflict humanity.

This year, Francis said his thoughts were particularly directed to the people of Ukraine and Gaza and to all those facing war, particularly the children who, he said, had “forgotten how to smile.”

“By calling for respect for the principles of international law, I express my hope for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the good of all!” he said.

He called for the “prompt” release of prisoners captured in Israel on October 7, an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and humanitarian access to Palestinians.

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have serious repercussions on the civilian population, now at the limit of its resistance, and especially on children,” he said in a speech that also addressed the plight of Haitians. the Rohingya and victims of human trafficking.

In recent weeks, Francis has generally avoided giving long speeches to avoid straining his breathing. He abandoned his Palm Sunday homily last week and decided at the last minute to stay home and not attend the Good Friday procession at the Coliseum.

The Vatican said in a brief explanation that the decision was made to “preserve his health.”

The decision clearly paid off, as Francis was able to recite the prayers of Saturday night’s long Easter Vigil service, including administering the sacraments of baptism and First Communion to eight new Catholics, and preside over Sunday Mass. Easter and give his speech.

Francis was not the only leader whose mere presence at Easter offered a reassuring sign of stability and normality.

In Britain, King Charles III joined the queen and other members of the royal family for an Easter service at Windsor Castle in his biggest public outing since he was diagnosed with cancer last month.

The monarch happily greeted spectators as he entered St George’s Chapel and then spent time shaking hands and greeting well-wishers after the service. “You are very brave to stay here in the cold,” Charles told them.

But things were not normal in Jerusalem, where Easter Mass came and went at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Only a few dozen worshipers attended the service as the war between Israel and Hamas continues in Gaza.

The medieval church of the Old Town is the sacred place where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

In years past, the church was packed with worshipers and tourists. But the bloody conflict in Gaza, now going on for six months, has caused a huge drop in tourism and pilgrimages in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

There were also no Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the city for Easter, on the streets of the old city. Since the conflict broke out, Palestinian worshipers in Israeli-occupied territory have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

In Gaza, the situation was equally grim. Only a few dozen Palestinian Christians celebrated Easter Mass at the Holy Family Church in Gaza City, but there was not much to celebrate.

“This doesn’t feel like Easter, like other times,” said Winnie Tarazi, a Christian from Gaza City. “It is because we are here deprived of our homes, our belongings, our children and everything. We lost our family between those days. who fled, who stayed and who were destroyed.”

On the Nineveh Plains in Iraq, where the Islamic State group killed and displaced thousands of Iraqi minorities 10 years ago, hundreds of people celebrated Easter in a region that has had a Christian presence since around the time of Jesus. Iraq’s Christian community, which once numbered around 1.5 million members, now numbers at most a few hundred thousand.

“We will definitely stay on this land and remain here until the end, and we hope for a change,” said Nassar Mubarak, who attended Easter mass at the Immaculate Conception church in Qaraqosh.


AP correspondents Danica Kirka in London, Jack Jeffery in Cairo, Mohammad Hajjar and Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City and Farid Abdulwahed in Qaraqosh, Iraq, contributed.

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