Pope Prays for End to Violence in Africa and Middle East in Easter Message

Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the end of violence in the Middle East and Africa, particularly singling out Syria, Nigeria and Iraq during his Easter address Sunday at Vatican City, as Christians around the world were celebrating the resurrection of Christ.

"May the risen Christ grant hope to the Middle East and enable all the ethnic, cultural and religious groups in that region to work together to advance the common good and respect for human rights," the pope said in his Easter message, "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and to the world), delivered from the St. Peter's Basilica balcony to a crowd of some 100,000 Catholics.

"Particularly in Syria, may there be an end to bloodshed and an immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation, as called for by the international community," the pontiff said. "May the many refugees from that country who are in need of humanitarian assistance find the acceptance and solidarity capable of relieving their dreadful sufferings. May the paschal victory encourage the Iraqi people to spare no effort in pursuing the path of stability and development. In the Holy Land, may Israelis and Palestinians courageously take up anew the peace process."

The pope also prayed that God would sustain the Christian community in Africa, where the Catholic Church has been enjoying vibrant growth in recent years.

"To Nigeria, which in recent times has experienced savage terrorist attacks, may the joy of Easter grant the strength needed to take up anew the building of a society which is peaceful and respectful of the religious freedom of its citizens," the pontiff said.

Nigeria has been experiencing violent terrorist attacks against its Christian community -- which makes up half of the population -- in recent years. Churches have been targeted particularly in the mostly Muslim north by Islamic terror group Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Syrian government appeared to be backing out of a cease-fire deal aimed at ending the country's crisis. Many Christians are reportedly stranded amid violence between the regime and pro-democracy rebels in Syria. Syria's main church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, officially supports the regime while some Christians have shown support for the rebels.

In Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Christians (even as many as one million, according to some estimates) left the country due to an eruption of sectarian violence that had seen religious minorities targeted, following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country.

Pope Benedict XVI, whose frail health has been a source of concern recently, also said Sunday he would make a three-day pilgrimage to Lebanon in September, celebrating Mass in Beirut and encouraging bishops and other churchmen in the Middle East.

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