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Pope Francis celebrates Easter amid huge crowd

VATICAN CITY--Celebrating Easter Sunday, Christianity's most joyous and hopeful day, Pope Francis prayed for peace in Ukraine and Syria and for an end to the terrorist attacks in Nigeria that have targeted many Christians.

More than 150,000 tourists — Romans and pilgrims, young and old — turned out for the Mass that Francis celebrated at an altar set up under a canopy on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica.

So great were their numbers that they overflowed the huge square, which was bedecked with row after row of potted daffodils, sprays of blue hyacinths and bunches of white roses. Waving flags from the pope's native Argentina as well as from Brazil, Mexico, Britain, Poland and many other countries, they also filled the broad boulevard leading from the square to the Tiber River.

Dawn brought clear skies and warm temperatures for Easter, the culmination of Holy Week, the day, which marks the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead after his crucifixion.

Francis noted that this year the Catholic Church's celebration of Easter coincided with that of Orthodox churches, which have many followers in Ukraine. Some of the hymns at the Vatican Mass on Sunday were in Russian.

Invoking God, he said, “we ask you to enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine, so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence.”

Tensions between pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine and those loyal to the interim government in Kiev have sparked bloodshed in recent days.

Francis also prayed that all sides in Syria will be moved to “boldly negotiate the peace long awaited and long overdue.” Since March 2011, Syria has been wracked by a civil war that has cost 150,000 lives and forced millions to flee the country.

Christians make up about 5 percent of Syria's population. In comments to mark Easter there, the Greek Orthodox patriarch vowed that Christians there “will not submit” to extremists who attack “our people and holy places.”

Francis makes a pilgrimage to Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel next month. On Easter, he prayed that hopes sparked by the resumption of Mideast peace negotiations be sustained.

He also recalled those suffering in Africa from an epidemic of deadly Ebola and urged a halt to “brutal terrorist attacks” in parts of Nigeria.

Nigerians marked Easter with heightened security against a spreading Islamic uprising, mourning the deaths of 75 bomb blast victims and fearful of the fate of 85 abducted schoolgirls. The homegrown terrorist network Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for last week's rush-hour explosion in the capital, Abuja and threatened more attacks.

In Venezuela, there were hopes that Vatican mediation can help end the country's violent political unrest and Francis urged that “hearts be turned to reconciliation and fraternal concord” there.

But Francis' Easter message also urged people to pay attention to the needy close to home. He said the “good news” of Easter's joy and hope means “leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life's troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast.”

Cheering and applauding, the crowd tried to catch a glimpse of the pontiff as he circled around in his white popemobile before going to the basilica's balcony to deliver his commentary.

Reflecting the worldwide reach of the Catholic Church, faithful read aloud prayers and passages from the Bible in Hindi, French, Chinese, German, Korean, Spanish, Italian and English.

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Ukrainian Orthodox believers light candles with fire delivered from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, traditionally believed to be the burial place of Jesus Christ, after the ceremony of the Holy Fire during the Easter service at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra church (Cave Monastery) in Kiev, late Saturday, April 19.(AP)

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