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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Pope urges talks with Iran over nuclear crisis in Easter message

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI called for peace across the world in his first Easter message, his 79th birthday, voicing hopes for a resolution to the conflict over Iran's nuclear drive.

An estimated 80,000 pilgrims packed St Peter's Square and nearby streets as Benedict led his first Easter Sunday mass as pope, and later greeted Catholics around the world in his "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message.

In a veiled reference to Iran's nuclear standoff with the international community, he called for "serious and honest" talks which would help achieve "an honourable solution" for all parties.

He urged that peace would "finally prevail" in Iraq, where violence "continues mercilessly to claim victims."

Benedict said he was praying that leaders and international organisations "be strengthened in their will to achieve peaceful coexistence among different races, cultures and religions, in order to remove the threat of terrorism."

Similarly, "patient and persevering dialogue" was needed in the Middle East, "to remove both ancient and new obstacles."

"May the international community, which reaffirms Israel's just right to exist in peace, assist the Palestinian people to overcome the precarious conditions in which they live and to build their future, moving towards the constitution of a state that is truly their own."

Much of his appeal focused on Africa, particularly Sudan's troubled Darfur region, where he said the humanitarian situation was "no longer sustainable".

The pontiff lamented that "many wounds have yet to be healed" across the continent, particularly in the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa, the Ivory Coast, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other nations "which aspire to reconciliation, justice and progress."

The huge crowd of pilgrims and tourists applauded when the pope prayed for "harmony" in Italy. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is refusing to concede defeat to the leftist opposition leader Romano Prodi after a disputed general election. The country's supreme court is to give its verdict on the winner next week after a partial recount of disputed votes.

The pope looked tired after just a few hours sleep following an Easter vigil which ended early Sunday.

An Italian Carabinieri band and the band of the Swiss Guards played as Benedict, celebrating his 79th birthday, led dozens of cardinals onto the square at the start of the mass, waving to the cheering crowd as he walked.

The square had been brightly decorated with a huge floral display of yellow and white flowers, the colours of the Vatican, to mark the most joyous day of the Christian calendar, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

"Dear brothers and sisters, Christ is Risen!" a smiling Benedict told cheering pilgrims from the central balcony of St Peter's cathedral, from where he pronounced his "Urbi et Orbi" message after the mass.

As a brisk spring breeze ruffled the pontiff's cream and gold vestments, he addressed Catholics around the world in 62 languages, from Malay to Maltese, Swedish to Swahili. The pilgrims and tourists reserved their biggest cheer for the moment he spoke in his native German.

The greeting at the end of the mass was made famous by his predecessor John Paul II. Last year, the dying pope was unable to perform the greeting for the first time in his 26-year pontificate, and died a week later.

Benedict made a surprise appearance later in the day, appearing at the balcony of his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

The pontiff greeted a small group of wellwishers who sang "Happy Birthday" to him at the residence outside Rome, where on Monday he will recite the Regina Coeli prayer, which replaces the Angelus sermon during the Eastern season.

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