The Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem on Sunday invited Pope Francis to visit the city where Jesus preached and healed.
Patriarch Fouad Twal sent the new pope an Easter greeting in which he invited him to visit Jerusalem and work toward easing the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, Israel Radio reported.
He also wrote to Francis of the need for a solution to the Palestinian issue and the conflict in Syria — both of which were addressed by the pope in the Easter peace plea he delivered on Sunday.
Earlier Sunday, Twal used his Easter homily to invite the pope and all Christians to visit the city. “The Lord… invites us here to carry the light of faith at the center of our region of the Middle East, where Christianity was born, where the mother church of Jerusalem was born, and where everything Christian was born,” Twal said.
Francis, for his part, said the conflicts have lasted too long in Syria, and between Israelis and Palestinians.
Like popes before him have done, he urged Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks and end a conflict that has gone on for way too long. And, in reflecting on the two-year-long Syrian crisis, Francis asked, “How much suffering must there still be before a political solution” can be found?
Shifting his focus from region to region, Francis urged “Peace for the Middle East, and particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, who struggle to find the road of agreement, that they may willingly and courageously resume negotiations to end a conflict that has lasted all too long.”
He pleaded next for “Peace in Iraq, that every act of violence may end, and above all for dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.”
Francis also urged reconciliation on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea says it has entered “a state of war” with South Korea.
He said that 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.”
Before a crowd of 250,000 in St. Peter’s Square, he also denounced 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.
In the Holy Land, Catholics and Protestants celebrated Easter with prayers and services.
Worshipers prayed Sunday in the ancient church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built on the site where, tradition holds, Jesus was crucified, briefly entombed and then resurrected.
Christians believe Jesus was resurrected on Easter. Roman Catholics and Protestants, who follow the new, Gregorian calendar, celebrate Easter on Sunday. Orthodox Christians, who follow the old, Julian calendar, will mark it in May.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry said it expects some 150,000 visitors during holy week and the Jewish festival of Passover, which coincide this year. A similar number arrived for the holidays last year, the ministry said. It is one of the busiest times of the year for the local tourism industry.
Protestants held Easter ceremonies outside Jerusalem’s walled Old City at the Garden Tomb, which some identify as the site of Jesus’ burial. Another service was held at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace.
There are no precise numbers on how many Christians there are in the Middle East. Census figures that show the size of religious and ethnic groups are often hard to obtain.
Christian populations are thought to be shrinking or at least growing more slowly than their Muslim compatriots in much of the Middle East, largely due to emigration, as they leave for better opportunities and to join families abroad. Some feel more uncomfortable amid growing Muslim majorities that they see as becoming more outwardly pious and politically Islamist over the decades.
Earlier Friday, Pope Francis and Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni exchanged greetings Friday to mark Passover and Easter.
The two holidays overlap this year.
The holidays, Di Segni wrote to the pontiff, “represent both the link and the separation between our religions.” He noted that, over history, Easter often was the occasion of anti-Semitic attacks. Today, however, “these days are experienced by both faiths in joy and harmony,” a fact for which he paid tribute to “all those people who have been committed to this healing.”
Di Segni offered a prayer for the pope “in the spirit of respect and brotherly friendship” with the hope that the lord “renders us able to reciprocally understand the sense of difference and the value of brotherhood.”
In his own message to Di Segni on the eve of Passover, the pope prayed that “the Almighty, who freed His people from slavery in Egypt to guide them to the Promised Land, continue to deliver you from all evil and to accompany you with His blessing. I ask you to pray for me, as I assure you of my prayers for you, confident that we can deepen [our] ties of mutual esteem and friendship.”
Israel’s President Shimon Peres recently invited Pope Francis to follow in the footsteps of his two immediate predecessors and visit Israel.
JTA contributed to this report.