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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Pope leads millions around the world in Easter celebrations

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI voiced growing concern over Iran's nuclear drive and other global conflicts in his first Easter message, as Christians worldwide celebrated their faith's most joyous day.

The pope, also marking his 79th birthday, called for "serious and honest" talks which would help achieve "an honourable solution" for all parties in Iran's nuclear standoff with the West.

Nearly 100,000 pilgrims and tourists packed St Peter's Square and surrounding streets as Benedict pronounced his first "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address, broadcast to more than 65 countries.

Bells rang out Easter morning in Christian churches across Europe, from the 12th-century St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna to Britain's Canterbury Cathedral, where the archbishop denounced the plot of the bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" which explores the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children.

The head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, commented that "it's almost that we'd prefer to believe something like this instead of the prosaic reality", according to a speech released in advance.

Williams also criticized the media's coverage of religion -- including the apparent discovery of a "Gospel of Judas" -- as amounting to "a little flurry of newspaper articles and television programmes raking over the coals of controversies about the historical basis of faith."

Easter celebrations, marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ, began earlier Sunday across Asia from the continent's largest Catholic nation, the Philippines, to communist Vietnam and China, where some worshippers prayed in hiding for fear of official persecution.

In strictly Muslim Afghanistan, gripped last month by a furore over the case of Abdul Rahman who faced the death penalty after converting to Christianity, pockets of underground Afghan Christians gathered in secret.

Yet in Jerusalem, the city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was the busiest Easter weekend since the start of the Palestinian uprising five years ago. An Israeli tourist ministry spokesman said some 90,000 visitors came to the Holy Land, up 20 percent from last year.

Thousands of Christians attended the Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- believed to be Jesus's burial site -- where the Vatican's representative, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, prayed for peace among people of all faiths.

Dozens of Iraqi Christians braved violence to walk to churches to celebrate, including at central Baghdad's Saint George's Church, where Father Raad Saleem prayed for "peace and normalcy in Iraq."

The community, which stood at more than one million people before the 1990 Gulf War, has shrunken over the years as people flee Iraq's insecurity and sectarian strife for safer shores.

The pope remembered them in his address: "May peace finally prevail over the tragic violence that continues mercilessly to claim victims," he said.

Benedict also urged relief for the "dramatic humanitarian situation" in Sudan's Darfur region and an end to conflicts and oppression across the African continent.

Catholic leaders in Africa gave Easter messages with a political tone. The archbishop of Dakar condemned the intrusion by police seeking to question a Senegalese opposition leader who was attending a Good Friday service.

In Burundi, the country's bishops issued a warning that "democracy was at risk... due to the will of some to grab all the power," while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the archbishop of Kinshasa urged the faithful to make good choices in the upcoming October elections.

In India, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in southern Kerala state, where Christians make up 23 percent of the population, prayed at the Saint Thomas Church in Malayattoor, many carrying the cross on their backs.

The Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa in India's eastern city of Kolkata held a special mass.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II sent Easter greetings to the pope and other western Christian leaders, as the Orthodox churches follow a different calendar and will mark their Easter next Sunday.

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