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Tens of thousands gather for Easter Mass at Vatican

Throngs of people have gathered at the Vatican to celebrate Easter, one of the most important holy days in the Christian tradition. The pope has focused this year's Easter message on the persecution of Christians.

Rain poured down on the crowds gathered outside of St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday.

Ahead of Easter Mass, Pope Francis celebrated the message of the holy day which marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to Christian belief.

He took a more somber tone during his message to Rome and to the world - known as "Urbi et Orbi" - praying for the relief of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, where they have increasingly become the target of Islamist extremists over the past year.

"We ask Jesus, the victor over death, to lighten the sufferings of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for his name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence - and there are many," he said.

The pontiff referred specifically to a

recent attack

on a university in eastern Kenya, where militants from the Somalia-based group, al-Shabab, shot dead over 140 non-Muslim students on Thursday.

"May constant prayer rise up from all people of goodwill for those who lost their lives," he said.

The 78-year-year Argentine pope prayed for peace in the war-torn Middle East and Africa. He also expressed hope that the new framework nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 would "be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world."

'Do not be afraid'

In Jerusalem, where Christ is believed to have been crucified nearly 2,000 years ago, the Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal also focused his Easter message on the problems Christians face in the region.

"Our future in this region and in the world is uncertain and even incomprehensible, but do not be afraid," Twal told worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

"From this tomb emanated light and peace," he said, referring to the site believed to mark Golgotha, where the basilica now stands. Christians believe it is the place where the Romans crucified Jesus.

"And here today, from this battered Holy Land, light and peace must spring out again. Let us pray for the grace of God for the Holy Land and the whole world."

The violence sparked by popular uprisings across a number of Middle East countries since 2011 has devolved into a war in Syria and sectarian violence in other nations, such as Iraq. Over the past year, the rise of Islamist extremist group "Islamic State" in both Syria and Iraq has caused concern not only for the majority Muslim population, but also

for the Christians

, who have reportedly been singled out for execution based on their religious beliefs.

Easter Sunday marks one of the most important holy days for the world's 6.9 billion Christians.

kms/jil (AFP, Reuters)

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