VATICAN CITY, Apr 20 – Pope Francis celebrated Easter mass on Sunday with a message of social solidarity as the world’s Orthodox marked a holiday marred by bitter divisions over Ukraine and clashes broke out in Jerusalem.
Francis led the ceremony for the holiest day in the Christian calendar on St Peter’s Square, which will be followed by a special blessing and address to crowds of Catholic faithful in the famous Vatican piazza.
Swiss Guards and cardinals could be seen as tens of thousands of people crowded into St Peter’s Square and the main avenue leading up to the Vatican, which was decorated with 35,000 flowers donated by Dutch growers.
At an Easter vigil on Saturday, Francis asked Catholics to bring “the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world… to all people, to the very ends of the Earth”.
Francis said the core of the Easter message was about returning to the basics and asking: “Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it?”
This is Francis’s second Easter since he was elected by fellow cardinals in March last year promising to make the Catholic Church less “Vatican-centric”, more transparent and closer to ordinary people.
On Good Friday, Francis attended a traditional torch-lit ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome where he called for help to “abandoned people” and railed against “the monstruosity of humankind”.
Prayers read out during the event honouring Christian martyrs past and present touched on pressing contemporary social issues including drug addiction, unemployment, prison overcrowding and domestic abuse.
The Vatican almoner meanwhile dispensed charity on the pope’s behalf to homeless people sleeping rough around Rome’s main train station Termini, handing out an Easter greeting card and 50-euro ($69) notes each.
At the start of four days of Easter rituals on Maundy Thursday, the pope washed the feet of 12 disabled people at a centre in Rome in a new take on a traditional ceremony inspired by Christ’s humility.
Easter this year coincides with the Orthodox calendar and Ukraine’s government said it was holding off on a confrontation with pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine until after the Easter holidays.
But four people were reported killed in a gunbattle at a barricade in the volatile eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk on Sunday, a local leader told journalists.
And there was a bitter war of words between religious leaders, with Kiev’s Patriarch Filaret thundering that Russia was an “enemy” whose “attack” was doomed to failure because it was evil and against God’s will.
In Moscow, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill prayed for God in turn to put “an end to the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia” and said Ukraine was “spiritually and historically” at one with Russia.
There were also tensions in Jerusalem amid Easter celebrations, with Israeli police arresting 16 Palestinians as they clashed with demonstrators at the Al-Aqsa compound in the Old City — a sensitive holy site revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims.