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Pope Francis celebrates first Easter as pontiff praying for peace before huge Vatican crowd

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis marked Christianity's most joyous day with a passionate plea for world peace, celebrating his first Easter Sunday as pontiff in the enthusiastic company of more than 250,000 people who overflowed from St. Peter's Square.

With eloquent words in his Easter message, Francis lamented enduring conflicts in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula and elsewhere and remembered the world's neediest people. With physical gestures, he illustrated the personal, down-to-earth caring he brings as a pastor to this new papacy — cradling a disabled child held out to him in the crowd and delightedly accepting a surprise gift thrust at him.

Francis shared in his flock's exuberance as they celebrated Christianity's core belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead following crucifixion. After Mass in flower-bedecked St. Peter's Square, he stepped aboard an open-topped white popemobile for a cheerful spin through pathways in the joyous crowd, kissing babies, smiling constantly and patting children on the head.

One admirer of both the pope and his favourite soccer team from his Argentine homeland, Saints of San Lorenzo, insisted that Francis take a team jersey he was waving at the pontiff — "take it, go ahead, take it," the man seemed to be telling the pope. Finally, a delighted Francis obliged, briefly holding up the shirt, and the crowd roared in approval. He handed the shirt to an aide in the front seat, and the popemobile continued its whirl through the square.

In a poignant moment, Francis cradled and kissed a physically disabled boy passed to him from the crowd. The child worked hard to make one of his arms hug the pope back, then succeeded, smiling in satisfaction as the pope patiently waited for the boy to give his greeting.

Francis has repeatedly put concern for the poor and suffering at the centre of his messages, and he pursued his promotion of the causes of peace and social justice in the Easter speech he delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the same vantage point above the square where he was introduced to the world as the first Latin American pope on March 13.

The Roman Catholic leader aimed his Easter greetings at "every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons." Francis prayed that Jesus would inspire people to "change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace."

As popes before him have, he urged Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks and end a conflict that "has lasted all too long." And, in reflecting on the two-year-old Syrian crisis, Francis asked, "How much suffering must there still be before a political solution" can be found?

The pope also expressed desire for a "spirit of reconciliation" on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea says it has entered "a state of war" with South Korea. He also decried warfare and terrorism in Africa, as well as what he called the 21st century's most extensive form of slavery: human trafficking.

The first pontiff to come from the Jesuits, an order with special concern for the poor, and the first pope to name himself after St. Francis, a medieval figure who renounced wealth to preach to the down-and-out, Francis lamented that the world is "still divided by greed looking for easy gain."

Earlier, wearing cream-colored vestments, Francis celebrated Mass on the esplanade in front of the basilica at an altar set up under a white canopy. He frequently bowed his head as if in silent reflection.

Francis seems to bring good weather to Rome. As has happened on several of the other first public outdoor appearances of his fledgling papacy, huge throngs defied forecasts of heavy rain to turn out. They were rewarded by dry skies and some bursts of sun through clouds.

Vatican officials said by mid-ceremony, 250,000 people had come to the square, and thousands of others, including last-minute Romans, flocked to the square just in time to catch his blessing at the end.

The square was a panoply of floral colour. Chilly winter has postponed the blossoming of many flowers. Yellow forsythia and white lilies shone, along with bursts of lavender and pink, from potted azalea, rhododendron, wisteria and other plants.

Francis thanked florists from the Netherlands for donating the flowers. He also advised people to let love transform their lives, or as he put it, "let those desert places in our hearts bloom."

The Vatican had prepared a list of brief Easter greetings in 65 languages, but Francis didn't read them. The Vatican didn't say why not, but has said that the new pope, at least for now, feels at ease using Italian, the everyday language of the Holy See. Francis also has stressed his role as a pastor to his flock, and, as Bishop of Rome, Italian would be his language.

The pontiff improvised his parting words to the crowd. He repeated his Easter greeting to those "who have come from all over the world to this square at the heart of Christianity" as well as to those "linked by modern technology," a reference to TV and radio coverage as well as social media.

Francis added that he was especially remembering "the weakest and the neediest" and praying that all of humanity be guided along "the paths of justice, love and peace."

In another departure from Easter tradition, Francis won't be heading for some post-holiday relaxation at the Vatican's summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills southeast of Rome. That retreat is already occupied by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who went there in the last hours of his papacy on Feb. 28. Benedict became the first pope in 600 years to resign from the position, and eventually is to move back to the Vatican, after a convent there is readied for him.

Francis so far has declined to move into Benedict's former apartment in the Apostolic Palace, into the rooms whose studio overlooks St. Peter's Square. He is still in the Vatican hotel where earlier this month he was staying along with other cardinals participating in the secret conclave to choose Benedict's successor.

While Francis has just begun to make his mark on the church, it is plain he has little desire to embrace much of the pomp customarily associated with the office.

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