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Pope leads crowds in first outdoor Easter Mass since pandemic

Pope Francis celebrated Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic, making Christianity’s most joyous day at a time when the war in Ukraine has weighed heavily on his heart.

Francis made an anguished plea for peace in the “senseless” war in Ukraine and in other armed conflicts raging in the world, and cited the “troubling” risk of nuclear warfare.

“May there be peace for war-torn Ukraine, so sorely tried by the violence and destruction of this cruel and senseless war into which it was dragged,” Francis said, speaking from the central balcony of St Peter’s Square.

The pontiff, 85, had just finished celebrating Easter Mass in the square packed by faithful for the holiday for the first time since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Applause erupted from many of the 50,000 people in the square and on a nearby avenue when he mentioned Ukraine.

“Please, please, let us not get used to war,” Francis pleaded, after denouncing “the flexing of muscles while people are suffering”.

The pontiff, who has a knee ligament problem, limped badly as he stepped out from the back of St. Peter’s Basilica to reach an altar set up on the steps outside, shaded by a canopy against brilliant sunshine.

Right after the end of Mass, Francis got aboard the white popemobile for a whirl through the square to greet cheering well-wishers among the rank-and-file faithful.

Meanwhile, in London, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called for Russia to declare a cease-fire and withdraw from Ukraine. The leader of the Anglican church said Easter is a time for peace and not “blood and iron.”

Noting that in the Eastern Orthodox church followed by many in Russia and Ukraine Sunday marks the start of Holy Week — with Easter coming on April 24 — Welby exhorted Russia to withdraw from Ukraine and commit to talks.

In an unusually blunt political remark, Welby also condemned the British government’s recent plan to send some asylum-seekers to Rwanda as going against God.

Warm weather and the easing of many pandemic restrictions — including what had been for most of the pandemic in Italy a mandatory outdoor mask requirement — have seen tourism boom in Rome, with many visitors flooding the city for Holy Week ceremonies that culminated on Easter.

In Spain, believers and secular enthusiasts flocked back in large numbers to Holy Week processions this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic after most health restrictions were lifted.

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