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Pope prays for an end to ‘vile’ attacks in Syria in his Easter address

From the balcony of St Peter's basilica in the Vatican, Pope Francis made specific reference to the explosion on Saturday that killed at least 100 evacuees awaiting transfer at a bus depot near Aleppo.
Pope Francis on the principal balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica during his Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing at the Vatican, Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. Photo courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano /EPA
Pope Francis on the principal balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica during his Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing at the Vatican, Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017. Photo courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano /EPA

VATICAN CITY // On the holiest day in Christendom, Pope Francis lamented the horrors generated by war and hatred, delivering an Easter Sunday message that also decried the “latest vile” attack on civilians in Syria.

In his balcony address, Francis prayed that God would sustain those working to comfort and help the civilian population in Syria, “prey to a war that continues to sow horror and death,” and made specific reference to the explosion Saturday that ripped through a bus depot in the Aleppo area where evacuees were awaiting transfer, killing at least 100 people.

“Yesterday saw the latest vile attack on fleeing refugees,” the pope said, also praying for peace in the Holy Land, Iraq and Yemen, and in war and famine-stricken parts of Africa, notably South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Turning his attention to eastern Europe, he asked that “the Good Shepherd come to the aid of Ukraine, still beset by conflict and bloodshed.”

Of the social and political upheaval in Europe, Francis prayed for God’s blessing on “those experiencing moments of crisis and difficulty, especially due to high unemployment, particularly among young people.”

Francis has repeatedly championed the dignity of migrants fleeing war, persecution or poverty. On Sunday he recalled “all those forced to leave their homelands as a result of armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, famine and oppressive regimes.”

Both in his impromptu homily during Mass in St. Peter’s Square and later in his formal “Urbi et Orbi” Easter message delivered from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis reflected on a litany of suffering in the world, including wars, oppressive regimes, human trafficking, corruption, famine and domestic violence.

Pope Francis also alluded to political and social tensions in Latin America, expressing the hope that the “common good of societies” would prevail.

He acknowledged that many people wonder where God is amid so much evil and suffering in the world but encouraged people to hold fast to faith in their “fearful hearts”.

About 60,000 people — fewer than usual but still including multinational throngs of pilgrims and tourists — endured tight antiterrorism security checks and a brief downpour to hear the pontiff and receive his blessing.

In Jerusalem, thousands of Christians marked Easter Sunday at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

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It was the first Easter since the unveiling in March of $3.7 million (Dh 13.6million) worth of renovations to the ornate, 19th-century shrine covering the tomb of Jesus. However, the tomb itself was off limits during masses.

Wajeeh Nusseibeh, 67, a member of one of the two Muslim families who traditionally hold the key and guard the church, said this year there seemed to be fewer people visiting than in the past. He blamed tough economic times and conflict, with Middle Eastern Christians under threat in countries such as Iraq and Syria.

At the same time, Jerusalem also remains the focal point of the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Holy Sepulchre is located in east Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967 and later annexed.

Easter this year fell on the same date for both Western and Eastern Christians, an irregular occurrence since they follow different calendars. Masses were staggered throughout the day for the various denominations that coexist, often uneasily, in the church in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Visits underground to the tomb itself were however off limits during masses.

Easter week got off to a bloody start last Sunday when 45 people were killed in attacks on two Coptic churches in Egypt which were claimed by ISIL.

In iraq, hundreds of Iraqi Christians gathered on Sunday in a church damaged by ISIL north of Mosul, celebrating Easter there for the first time since 2014.

Tel Esqof, meaning Bishop’s Hill in Arabic, did not sustain the same amount of damage as other Christian towns overrun by the militants three years ago in the plain of Nineveh.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters dislodged the hardline Sunni militants from Tel Esqof just a week after it had fallen, in August 2014. On Sunday, they stood guard around the church.

The militants had smashed the church’s windows, though a new cross has now been put up in place of the one the militants took down.

A fresh breeze on Sunday cooled the white chapel as the choir sang hymns in Chaldean, a language close to the Amaraic spoken by Jesus.

The mass ended with a festive distribution of soft drinks and coloured eggs in the inner courtyard by a French group, SOS Chretiens d’Orient (Christians of the East.)

ISIL gave the region’s Christians an ultimatum: pay a tax, convert to Islam, or die by the sword. Most of them fled to the autonomous Kurdish region, across the Zab river to the east.

More than 350 families returned to Tel Esqof which has been more secure since October, when US-backed Kurdish and Iraqi forces launched an offensive to dislodge the militants from Mosul, taking back dozens of villages and towns along the way. For many, though, Tel Esqof is not really home, but simply a place where they feel safe in the company of relatives or friends.

Madeleine Roufael, a 70 year-old widow, is still waiting to return to Mosul, about 20km to the south.

“Thank God,” she repeats, grateful to be celebrating Easter once again. “God willing, we will return home.”

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“I wish peace for Iraq, for Syria, for Lebanon,” said Aws Hermez, deacon of the church. “Peace for the whole world.”

* Agence France Presse

* Reuters

Updated: April 16, 2017 04:00 AM

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