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Pope Francis calls for a ceasefire in Gaza during a blustery Easter Sunday Mass

Pope Francis calls for a ceasefire in Gaza during a blustery Easter Sunday Mass

In his Easter blessing, Pope Francis made a strong appeal for a cease-fire in Gaza and a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.

The 87-year-old pontiff presided over Easter Sunday Mass in a flower-decked St. Peter’s Square and then delivered a heartfelt prayer for peace in his annual roundup of global crises.

In between, he made several loops around the piazza in his popemobile, greeting well-wishers.

“Peace is never made with weapons, but with outstretched hands and open hearts,” Francis said from the loggia overlooking the square, to applause from the wind-swept crowd below.

Francis appeared in good form, despite having celebrated a two-and-a-half-hour nighttime Easter Vigil just hours before.

The pontiff, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, has been battling respiratory problems all winter and his full participation in Easter services was not entirely guaranteed, especially after he skipped the traditional Good Friday procession.

A view of St. Peter's Square at The Vatican during the Easter Sunday mass celebrated by Pope Francis, Sunday, March 31, 2024
A view of St. Peter's Square at The Vatican during the Easter Sunday mass celebrated by Pope Francis, Sunday, March 31, 2024 - Alessandra Tarantino/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Following the Mass, more people packed into the Via della Conciliazione boulevard leading to the piazza.

At the start of the service, a gust of wind knocked over a large religious icon on the altar just a few feet from the pope; ushers quickly righted it.

Vatican ushers raise the icon of the holy savior as Pope Francis celebrates Easter mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024.
Vatican ushers raise the icon of the holy savior as Pope Francis celebrates Easter mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024. - Alessandra Tarantino/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

The Mass precedes the “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing, in which the pope traditionally offers a laundry list of the threats afflicting humanity.

This year, Francis said his thoughts went particularly to people in Ukraine and Gaza and all those facing war, particularly the children who he said had “forgotten how to smile.”

“In calling for respect for the principles of international law, I express my hope for a general exchange of all prisoners between Russia and Ukraine: all for the sake of all!” he said.

He called for the “prompt” release of prisoners taken from Israel on 7 October, an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for humanitarian access to reach Palestinians.

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have grave repercussions on the civil population, by now at the limit of its endurance, and above all on the children,” he said in a speech that also touched on the plight of Haitians, the Rohingya and victims of human trafficking.

Pope Francis waves faithful after celebrating Easter mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024.
Pope Francis waves faithful after celebrating Easter mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024. - Alessandra Tarantino/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Easter Mass is one of the most important dates on the liturgical calendar, celebrating what the faithful believe was Jesus’ resurrection after his crucifixion.