By Philip Pullella / Reuters
VATICAN CITY: A fatigued-looking Pope Benedict threw his weight behind a United Nations plan to end bloodshed in Syria in his Easter Sunday message, calling for “an immediate commitment” to peace efforts there.
The 84-year-old pope gave a shorter-than-usual blessing from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica after an outdoor Easter Mass attended by more than 100,000 people in a St Peter’s Square bedecked with yellow and white flowers.
“May the risen Christ grant hope to the Middle East and enable all the ethnic, cultural and religious groups in that region to work together to advance the common good and respect for human rights,” he said.
“Particularly in Syria, may there be an end to bloodshed and an immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation, as called for by the international community,” he said, speaking to a festive crowd packed into the square and surrounding streets.
There was no official explanation why his twice yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) speech was shorter than in previous years but the pope, who turns 85 on April 16 and has appeared frail recently, looked drawn and tired at Sunday’s Mass.
Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Christian liturgical calendar, capped an intense period of recent activity for the pope, including a grueling trip to Mexico and Cuba late last month and five religious services this past week.
As the pope spoke in Rome, Syrian troops pounded opposition areas, activists said, killing 74 civilians in an offensive that has sent thousands of refugees surging into Turkey before next week’s UN-backed ceasefire aimed at staunching a year of bloodshed.
A peace plan formulated by UN Arab League envoy Kofi Annan calls for a truce to take effect early on Thursday if government forces begin pulling back from towns 48 hours earlier. Both sides have accused the other of intensifying assaults in the run-up to the truce.
The pope also made an appeal on behalf of civilians fleeing the Syrian conflict, most by fleeing to Turkey.
“May the many refugees from that country who are in need of humanitarian assistance find the acceptance and solidarity capable of relieving their dreadful sufferings,” he said.
He also called for “stability and development” in Iraq, urged Israelis and Palestinians to “courageously take up anew the peace process,” and condemned recent “savage terrorist attacks” against Christian churches in Nigeria.
While the Mass was in progress, the Vatican announced that the pope will visit Lebanon on Sept. 14-16 to deliver the results of a Vatican synod of bishops on the Middle East in 2010.
At the end of his Easter message, Benedict wished the world a Happy Easter in 65 languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and other languages spoken in the areas in mentioned in his peace appeals
Benedict started Easter celebrations on Saturday night when, at a solemn vigil Mass in St Peter’s Basilica, he said technological progress, in the absence of awareness of God and moral values, posed a threat to the world.
“The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil,” he said.