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Saturday August 29th, 2015 5:31AM

Pope Francis delivers first Easter sermon

By The Associated Press
VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis delivered a plea for peace in his first Easter Sunday message to the world, decrying the seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East and on the Korean peninsula after celebrating Mass along with more than 250,000 faithful.

After the Mass in St. Peter's Square, Francis shared in the crowd's exuberance as they celebrated the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead following crucifixion. Aboard an open-topped popemobile, Francis took a lighthearted spin through the joyous gatherers, kissing babies and patting children on the head.

One admirer of the pope and the pope's favorite soccer team, Argentina's Saints of San Lorenzo, insisted that Francis take a team jersey he was waving at the pontiff. A delighted Francis obliged, briefly holding up the shirt.

Since the start of his papacy on March 13, Francis has repeatedly put his concern for the poor and suffering at the center of his messages, and the Easter speech he delivered from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica reflected his push for peace and social justice.

He said he wished a "Happy Easter" greeting could reach "every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons." Francis prayed that Christ would help people "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.

Francis, the first pope from Latin America and a member of the Jesuit order, lamented that the world is "still divided by greed looking for easy gain." He wished for an end to violence linked to drug trafficking and the dangers stemming from the reckless exploitation of natural resources.

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.

The sun competed with clouds in the sky Sunday, but the square was a riot of floral color in Rome, where 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.
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