Pope Benedict XVI has called for peace in Africa and the Middle East during his Easter blessing on Sunday, April 12, just weeks ahead of his first trip to the Holy Land as pontiff.
The pope's message of reconciliation comes amid few signs of peace in the Middle East
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Rome's St Peter's Square on an overcast day to hear Pope Benedict XVI give the traditional urbi et orbi -- "to the city and the world" -- message.
Tens of thousands gathered to hear Pope Benedict's Easter Mass
The 81-year-old pontiff said he wanted this year's Easter message to convey the idea of peace and reconciliation in crisis zones all over the world.
"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 said, three weeks after his maiden trip to the continent as pope.
The pontiff also said reconciliation among rival factions in the Middle East was "difficult, but indispensable."
"Reconciliation... is a precondition for a future of overall security and peaceful coexistence, and it can only be achieved through renewed, persevering and sincere efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," he said.
"I shall repeat the same message emphatically in the Holy Land, to which I shall have the joy of traveling in a few weeks from now."
Benedict's tour of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories in May will be his first as pope. It comes amid tensions between Jews and the Catholic Church, following criticism of the German-born pontiff's handling of a controversy over a priest who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
Sadness, too, on joyous occasion
Italy suffered a devastating earthquake this year
The Easter Sunday Mass commemorates the day Christians believe Jesus Christ was resurrected after his death by crucifixion.
This year it was a somber occasion for Italians, arriving on the heels of Italy's most deadly earthquake in nearly three decades.
From the steps of St. Peter's basilica, the pontiff delivered a special blessing to the survivors of last week's disaster in the nearby region of Abruzzo.
"Happy Easter to you, men and women of Italy, in particular those who suffer because of the earthquake," Benedict XVI 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."
New converts baptized
The service was the climax of a busy Christian holy week for the pope.
On Saturday night, Benedict led the world's Catholics into Easter with an evening mass. He entered a darkened St. Peter's Basilica with a tall, lit candle.
The vigil on Saturday night opened the holiest day of the Christian calendar
As the faithful lit their own candles from the pope's and passed the flame onto others, the largest Christian church in the world became a sea of flickering light, symbolizing the illuminating presence in the world of the resurrected Christ.
Once the lights had been turned back on, the pope also baptized, confirmed and gave first communion to five converts, including nationals from China, Italy and the US.