Pope pleads for peace, mideast celebrates Easter

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The more-than 250,000 people who gathered in St. Peter's Square on this Easter Sunday have been rewarded with a visit from the new pontiff.

After celebrating Mass, Pope Francis stepped aboard his popemobile for a spin through the crowd, kissing babies and patting children on the head. One man handed Francis a jersey for the pope's favorite soccer team in Argentina. Francis briefly held it up, and the crowd roared in approval.

In his first Easter Sunday message to the world, the pope decried the seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula. Like popes before him, he urged Israelis and Palestinians to find the courage to resume peace talks and end a conflict that he said "has lasted all too long." On the Syrian crisis, he asked, "How much suffering must there still be," before there can be a political solution.

He expressed a desire for a "spirit of reconciliation" between the Koreas, at a time when North Korea says it has entered "a state of war" with the South.

And he lamented that the world is "still divided by greed looking for easy gain."

Earlier, wearing cream-colored vestments, Francis celebrated Mass in front of St. Peter's Basilica at an altar set up under a white canopy.

Meanwhile, Catholics and Protestants flocked to churches to celebrate Easter on Sunday in the Holy Land and across the broader Middle East, praying, singing and rejoicing.

Some Mideast Christian communities are in a flux, while others feel isolated from their Muslim-majority societies. In places like Iraq, they have sometimes been the victims of bloody sectarian attacks.

At St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad, some 200 worshippers attended an Easter mass that the Rev. Saad Sirop led behind concrete blast walls and a tight security cordon. Churches have been under tighter security since a 2010 attack killed dozens.

"We pray for love and peace to spread through the world," said worshipper Fatin Yousef, 49, who arrived immaculately dressed for the holiday. She wore a black skirt, low-heeled pumps and a striped shirt and her hair tumbled in salon-created curls.

It was the first Easter since the election of Pope Francis and she and others expressed hope in their new spiritual leader. "We hope Pope Francis will help make it better for Christians in Iraq," she said.

In Jerusalem, Catholics worshipped in the church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on a hill where tradition holds that Jesus was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected. The cavernous, maze-like structure is home to different churches belonging to rival sects that are crammed into different nooks and even the roof.

Clergy in white and gold robes led the service held around the Edicule, the small chamber at the core of the church marking the site of Jesus' tomb. Many foreign visitors were among the worshippers.

"It's very special," said Arthur Stanton, a visitor from Australia. "It represents the reason why we were put on this planet, and the salvation that has come to us through Jesus."

Israel's Tourism Ministry said it expects some 150,000 visitors during holy week and the Jewish festival of Passover, which coincide this year. It is one of the busiest times of the year for the local tourism industry.

Protestants held Easter ceremonies outside Jerusalem's walled Old City at the Garden Tomb, a small, enclosed green area that some identify as the site of Jesus' burial. Another service was held at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace.

Catholics and Protestants, who follow the new, Gregorian calendar, celebrate Easter on Sunday. Orthodox Christians, who follow the old, Julian calendar, will mark it in May.

There are no precise numbers on how many Christians there are in the Middle East. Census figures showing the size of religious and ethnic groups are hard to obtain.

Christian populations are thought to be shrinking or at least growing more slowly than their Muslim compatriots in much of the Middle East, largely due to emigration as they leave for better opportunities and to join families abroad. Some feel more uncomfortable amid growing Muslim majorities that they see as becoming more outwardly pious and politically Islamist over the decades.

The situation for some Mideast Christians is in flux.

In Syria, Christians, who make up some 10 percent of the country's 23 million people, have mostly stayed on the sidelines of the two-year civil war. While outraged by the regime of Bashar Assad's brutal efforts to quash the opposition, they are equally frightened by the Islamist rhetoric of many rebels and their heavy reliance on extremist fighters.

Christians make up some 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people. Human rights groups say the police under former authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak rarely took the needed steps to prevent flare-ups of violence against Christians, a situation that persisted since he was overthrown in 2011. The rise of Islamists in Egypt has emboldened

extremists to target churches and Coptic property, leading to a spike in attacks and sometimes unprecedented steps like the evacuation of entire Christian populations from villages.

In Libya, most Christians are Egyptian laborers who are working in the oil-rich country. Tensions rose last month after assailants torched a church in the eastern city of Benghazi and militias arrested some 100 Christians, mostly Egyptian, accusing them of proselytizing.

In Iraq, Christians have suffered repeated attacks by Islamic militants since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and hundreds of thousands have left the country. Church officials estimate that the Christian communities have shrunk by at least half. The worst attack was at Baghdad's soaring Our Lady of Salvation church in October 2010 that killed more than 50 worshippers and wounded scores of others.

There currently are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Christians in Iraq, with most belonging to ancient eastern churches. Some two-thirds of Iraq's Christians are Catholics of the Chaldean church and the smaller Assyrian Catholic church. Members of both churches chant in dialects of ancient Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.

Yousef, the worshipper in Baghdad, said lingering fear pushed her to send her son to live with relatives in Arizona last year. Yousef said she was arranging for her other daughter and son to immigrate.

"There's still fear here, and there's no stability in this country," she said.

Iraqi officials have made efforts to secure churches since the violence of 2010.

High blast walls topped with wire netting and barbed wire surrounded the St. Joseph Church in Baghdad's middle-class district of Karradeh. Four Iraqi Christian volunteers stood at the church entrance, double-checking the people entering. And blue-khaki clad Iraqi police guarded roads surrounding the church and checked papers of passers-by as worshippers filed inside.

White-robed church volunteers marched down the church aisle behind Father Sirop, who waved incense and chanted in the white-painted church adorned with three ornate chandeliers and a series of simple paintings illustrating the life of Christ.

Worshippers stood for lengthy passages of Sirop's mass, at one point bursting into applause when he told them, "Celebrate! You are Christians!"

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