Pope laments Iraq 'slaughter' in Easter message

By Phil Stewart

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict, in his Easter message, made an impassioned call for world peace today that lamented the "continual slaughter" in Iraq and the growing unrest in Afghanistan.

The 79-year-old Pope made the appeal in his Easter "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message to tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square as he concluded the second Easter season of his still-young pontificate.

In the speech, televised to millions of viewers in 67 countries at the end of Easter Sunday mass, he listed his worries about problems facing the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

"Nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees," the Pope said.

The Pope also lamented the "growing unrest and instability" in Afghanistan, which is bracing for a bloody spring offensive after a resurgent Taleban staged the most intensive year of fighting since they were ousted in 2001.

He condemned terrorism and the use of religion to justify a "thousand faces of violence".

"Peace is sorely needed," the Pontiff said.

The Pope read the speech from the same central balcony of St Peter's Basilica where he appeared to the world for the first time as pontiff after his election nearly two years ago.

Resplendent in gold vestments, the Pope delivered Easter greetings in 62 languages, including Hebrew and Arabic. The crowd below, basking in the sun of a warm spring day, erupted into cheers as he blessed them.

Hope for Israel-Palestinian dialogue

In another part of the speech, the Pope said the Middle East's future was "put seriously in jeopardy" by political paralysis in Lebanon, where the government is challenged by an opposition that includes Hezbollah.

But he noted "some signs of hope in the dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian authority".

His comments followed the formation of a Palestinian unity government last month. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also said on Friday an Israeli soldier, abducted by Gaza militants 10 months ago in a cross-border raid, would be released soon.

Turning his attention toward Africa, the Pontiff lamented violence and looting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and said renewed fighting in Somalia had "driven away the prospect of peace and worsened a regional crisis".

"In Darfur and in the neighbouring countries, there is a catastrophic, and, sadly to say, underestimated humanitarian situation," the Pope said.

The Easter event is just one of many important milestones in April for the Pope. He celebrates his 80th birthday on April 16. On April 19, he will celebrate the second anniversary of his election as Pontiff.

- REUTERS

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