Pope overcomes health concerns to preside over Easter Mass and appeal for peace in Gaza and Ukraine

Mar 31, 2024, 1:40 AM

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis rallied from a winter-long bout of respiratory problems to lead some 60,000 people in Easter celebrations Sunday, making a strong appeal for a cease-fire in Gaza and a prisoner swap 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 roundup of global crises. Gaza’s people, including the small Christian community there, have been a source of constant concern for Francis and Easter in the Holy Land overall was a somber affair this year given the war.

“Peace is never made with weapons, but with outstretched hands and open hearts,” Francis said from the loggia overlooking the square, to applause from the wind-swept crowd below.

Francis appeared in good form, despite having celebrated the 2½-hour nighttime Easter Vigil just hours before. The pontiff, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling respiratory problems all winter and his full participation in Easter services was not entirely guaranteed, especially after he skipped the traditional Good Friday procession.

But in a sign the 87-year-old pontiff was feeling OK, he made several loops around the piazza in his popemobile after Mass, greeting well-wishers.

The Vatican said some 60,000 people attended the Mass, with more packing the Via della Conciliazione boulevard leading to the piazza. At the start of the service, a gust of wind knocked over a large religious icon on the altar just a few feet from the pope; ushers quickly righted it.

Easter Mass is one of the most important dates on the liturgical calendar, celebrating what the faithful believe was Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion. The Mass precedes the “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing, in which the pope traditionally offers a laundry list of the threats afflicting humanity.

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

“In 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 sake of all!” he said.

He called for the “prompt” release of prisoners taken from Israel on Oct. 7, an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for humanitarian access to reach Palestinians.

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have grave repercussions on the civil population, by now at the limit of its endurance, and above all on the children,” he said in a speech that also touched on the plight of Haitians, the Rohingya and victims of human trafficking.

For the past few weeks, Francis has generally avoided delivering long speeches to avoid the strain on his breathing. He ditched his Palm Sunday homily last week and decided at the last minute to stay home from the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum.

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

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


Francis wasn’t the only leader whose mere presence at Easter offered a reassuring sign of stability and normalcy.

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

The monarch offered a cheery wave to spectators as he walked into St. George’s Chapel, and then spent time shaking hands and greeting well-wishers after the service. “You’re very brave to stand out here in the cold,” Charles told them.


But things were hardly normal in Jerusalem, where Easter Mass came and went at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Only a few dozen faithful attended the service as the Israel-Hamas war rages on in Gaza.

The medieval church in the Old City is the holy site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

In years past, the church has been packed with worshippers and tourists. But the bloody conflict in Gaza, now into its sixth month, has seen a huge downturn in tourism and pilgrimages across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The streets of the old city were also absent of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the city for Easter. Since the conflict erupted, Palestinian worshippers from the Israeli-occupied territory have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.


In Gaza, the situation was even more bleak. Only a few dozen Palestinian Christians celebrated Easter Mass at the Holy Family Church in Gaza City, but there wasn’t much to celebrate.

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

The sentiment was similar in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where only a few dozen people attended Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

”There is no holiday atmosphere and there is no joyful atmosphere this year,” said Bethlehem resident George Kanawati. “The holidays lack joy and the smile of children, which the occupation always tries to erase and kill this smile.”

The plight of Gaza was also a concern in New York, where police arrested three people who disrupted the Easter Vigil Mass at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday. They held up a banner reading “Silence = Death” on the altar and yelled “Free Palestine” as they were escorted out, police said.


But in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains, where 10 years ago the Islamic State group killed and displaced thousands of minority Iraqis, 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 was once some 1.5 million strong, now numbers at most a few hundred thousand but they came out in droves for Easter.

“We will definitely stick to this land and remain here until the last, and 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, Farid Abdulwahed in Qaraqosh, Iraq, and Maysoon Khan in New York contributed.


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Pope overcomes health concerns to preside over Easter Mass and appeal for peace in Gaza and Ukraine