Plea for peace: Pope Francis calls for Gaza ceasefire in Easter message
Pope Francis celebrates Easter mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Sunday, March 31, 2024. The pontiff called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. | Andrew Medichini / AP

ROME (AP)—Pope Francis rallied from a winter-long bout of respiratory problems to lead some 60,000 people in Easter celebrations Sunday, making a strong appeal for a ceasefire in Gaza and a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine.

Francis 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.

“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. The Vatican said some 60,000 people attended the Mass.

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. For weeks, Francis has been pushing Ukraine to “have the courage” to negotiate the terms of peace with Russia and to resume POW swaps.

He also called for the “prompt” release of prisoners taken from Israel on Oct. 7, an immediate ceasefire 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.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Easter Mass came and went at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with only a few dozen faithful attending the service as the war rages on in Gaza. The medieval church in the Old City is the holy site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected.

In years past, the church has been packed with worshippers and tourists. But the bloody conflict in Gaza, now into its sixth month, has seen a huge downturn in tourism and pilgrimages across Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The streets of the Old City were also absent of Palestinian Christians from the West Bank, who normally flock to the city for Easter. Since the latest war erupted, Palestinian worshippers from the Israeli-occupied territory have needed special permission to cross checkpoints into Jerusalem.

In Gaza, the situation was even more bleak. Only a few dozen Palestinian Christians celebrated Easter Mass at the Holy Family Church in Gaza City, but there wasn’t much to celebrate.

“This doesn’t feel like Easter, like other times,” said Winnie Tarazi, a Christian from Gaza City. “It’s because we are here deprived of our homes, our belongings, our children, and everything. We lost our family between those who fled, who stayed, and who were destroyed.”

The sentiment was similar in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where only a few dozen people attended Mass at the Church of the Nativity.

“There is no holiday atmosphere, and there is no joyful atmosphere this year,” said Bethlehem resident George Kanawati. “The holidays lack joy and the smile of children; the occupation always tries to erase and kill this smile.”

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Nicole Winfield
Nicole Winfield

Nicole Winfield is the Associated Press correspondent based in Rome, covering the Vatican, and Italy.