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Pope Francis demands immediate ceasefire in Gaza

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Pope Francis has renewed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and the release of all Israeli captives in a peace-focused address marking Easter Sunday, the most important day on the Christian calendar.

Francis presided over mass in a packed St Peter’s Square and then delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica.

“I appeal once again that access to humanitarian aid be ensured to Gaza, and call once more for the prompt release of the hostages seized on last October 7 and for an immediate ceasefire in the Strip,” he said.

“Let us not allow the current hostilities to continue to have grave repercussions on the civil population, by now at the limit of its endurance, and above all on the children,” he said in a speech that also touched on the plight of Haitians, the Rohingya and victims of human trafficking.

“How much suffering we see in the eyes of children, the children have forgotten to smile in those war zones. With their eyes, children ask us: Why? Why all this death? Why all this destruction? War is always an absurdity and a defeat”, he said.

Francis, 87, has been in poor health in recent weeks, forcing him on repeated occasions to limit his public speaking and cancel engagements as he did on Good Friday, skipping at short notice a procession at Rome’s Colosseum.

However, he took part normally in other Holy Week events leading up to Easter and appeared in relatively good spirits at Sunday’s mass. Easter celebrates the day in which the faithful believe Jesus rose from the dead.

After the service, the pontiff took to his open-topped popemobile to tour the square and the avenue connecting the Vatican to the River Tiber and greet the tens of thousands of people who had lined up to see him.

This year, Francis said his thoughts went particularly to people in Ukraine and Gaza and all those facing war, particularly the children who he said had “forgotten how to smile”. Francis has repeatedly deplored the death and destruction in the Gaza war.

UNICEF reported earlier this month that Israel has killed more than 13,000 children in Gaza since the war began on October 7, while others are suffering from severe malnutrition and do not “even have the energy to cry”.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza on Sunday said at least 32,782 Palestinians have been killed in the besieged enclave during nearly six months of war. The toll includes at least 77 deaths over the past 24 hours, the ministry statement said, adding that 75,298 people have been wounded.

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