VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI contrasted war and hunger with the joy of Easter Sunday and issued a ringing call for diplomacy to prevail over fighting in Libya, for nations to welcome refugees from conflict and for Middle East leaders to respect their citizens.
Benedict celebrated Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square, packed with pilgrims and tourists and awash in the bright colors of spring flowers as he marked the church's most joyous day of the year.
He told the crowd: "In the current conflict in Libya, may diplomacy and dialogue replace arms, and may those who suffer as a result of the conflict be given access to humanitarian aid."
Referring to northern Africa and the Middle East, the pope prayed for the realization of a society where "every political choice is inspired by respect for the human person."
Christians worldwide on Easter Sunday recall Jesus' resurrection, a sign of eternal life, following his crucifixion. This year, Easter fell on the same day in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church calendars.
But while "in heaven, all is peace and gladness," Benedict said in his message, delivered after the Mass from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, "alas, it is not so on earth." He lamented that hunger, disease, war and violence still cause suffering in the world.
He prayed for people in the Middle East, "so that the light of peace and of human dignity may overcome the darkness of division, hate and violence."
"In all the countries of northern Africa and the Middle East, may all citizens, especially young people, work to promote the common good and to build a society where poverty is defeated and every political choice is inspired by respect for the human person," the pope said.
Uprisings, repression and civil warfare have triggered an exodus of people to European shores as well as other countries in the region. Europe has been split over whether to accept or deport tens of thousands of migrants, many of them from Libya and elsewhere in northern Africa.
Benedict rallied to the side of the refugee, saying, "may people of good will open their hearts to welcome them."
In Rome, the drama of societies unwanted played out in one of the city's major basilicas, where some 150 Gypsies have taken refuge from city officials who are dismantling illegal Roma trailer settlements. The Gypsies say City Hall will split their families by sending women and children to a shelter in a Rome suburb but not men.
In a sign of Easter solidarity, several dozen Romans brought food, diapers and milk for babies to the improvised refugee camp inside St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica.
One couple, parents of an infant themselves, donated a traditional Italian Easter cake baked in the shape of a dove, symbol of peace.
"I felt strong outrage when I read about the situation," said Lalla Di Cerbo, another resident of Rome. "I think it is such a contradiction on Easter Day," she told AP Television News. Benedict's "Urbi et Orbi" message to the city of Rome and the world also called for Ivory Coast to "tread the path of reconciliation and pardon." He also prayed that Japan find consolation as it reels from the devastation from an earthquake and tsunami.
By the time the pope delivered his speech, well over 100,000 people had thronged to the area.
Resplendent in gold-colored robes, Benedict led the ceremony from an altar set up on the steps of the basilica, under a red canopy to shield him from rain or sun. Skies over the Vatican alternated between clouds and peeks of sun.
The 84-year-old Benedict looked relaxed, although his voice cracked a bit as he intoned prayers during the sung parts of the Mass. His voice had sounded hoarse at times the previous evening, when the pope led a late-night Easter Vigil Mass lit by candles in the basilica.
On Sunday, the square was bedecked with rows of flowers in full bloom and tourists waving scarves and flags from their homelands.
The blossoms seemed almost as numerous as the faithful. The Dutch suppliers of the floral decorations said about 41,000 potted plants lined the square. The flowers included 500 potted hyacinths, 150 lily plants, 1,000 off-white roses, azaleas, tulips, and 10,000 narcissus plants, many of them in yellow and white, the official Vatican colors, and arranged in neat, rows up the slope toward the altar.
Benedict prayed aloud that Easter would help believers testify to their faith with "words and life." Shoring up flagging faith in much of the Western world has been a key goal of the Vatican, both under Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II.
Benedict will return to the square in exactly one week to lead a crowd expected to be at least double Easter's turnout when he beatifies John Paul, putting the Polish-born, long-serving pontiff on the last formal step before eventual sainthood.
A young Spanish woman in the crowd said she had hoped to come for the beatification "because I loved John Paul." But, 21-year-old engineering student, Beatriz Prego, added ruefully that she decided to come at Easter instead because she couldn't afford the plane tickets for beatification weekend. (AP)