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World's Christians Celebrate Easter

From Moscow to Sofia, Rome to Jerusalem, Christians of the Orthodox and Western faiths celebrated Easter Sunday, prayed for a better future and relished ancient rituals on the same day this year as their religious calendars coincided.

The alignment of the Easter calendars, based on equinox and moon phases, occurs every few years, and this year's overlap made the narrow streets in the Holy Land especially crowded.

At the Vatican, the Eastern Christian celebrations of Easter resounded across the steps of St. Peter's Basilica when black-robed clerics intoned a long chant from the Byzantine liturgy during Pope Benedict XVI's outdoor Mass for tens of thousands of faithful. St. Peter's Square was ablaze with color from tulips, tiger lilies, hyacinths and azaleas from the Netherlands.

Benedict, head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, tempered his message about Easter joy with a litany of suffering in the world today, including what he decried as "continual slaughter" in Iraq and bloodshed in parts of Africa and Asia.

In Britain, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, the second-highest ranking cleric in the Church of England, conducted a series of public open-air baptisms, welcoming a total of 20 people into the Christian faith by immersing them in a large water tank. The celebration in St Sampson's Square of York, northern England, was attended by leaders of different Christian denominations.

Easter brought a little good will to strained Russian-Georgian relations when Moscow made an exception and allowed a few Georgian charter flights to arrive for holiday celebrations.

Tense international relations echoed, too, in Orthodox celebrations in Bulgaria. There, worshippers clutched candles and prayed for five Bulgarian nurses facing the death penalty in Libya. Libya has accused the nurses of infecting about 400 Libyan children with the HIV virus. The nurses have proclaimed their innocence. The European Union, which Bulgaria joined this year, has urged Libyan authorities to release the nurses.

In Ukraine's capital, several hundred supporters of the premier marked Easter in tents as they protested the president's order to dissolve parliament. The dispute is a reflection of long-running struggle between Western-leaning and pro-Russian politicians.

In previous years, many foreign visitors had stayed away from Easter celebrations in Jerusalem, afraid of the surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence. But with tensions calming, many returned this year, further enlarging the crowds of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant faithful brought to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher together because of the alignment of the religious calendars.

Many Christians believe the church is built on the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.

After weeks of Lenten sacrifice and fasting in preparation for Easter, many Christians in Eastern Europe enjoyed holiday meals including brightly colored hard-boiled eggs and various sweet breads. Roast lamb was featured on many tables in the Balkans as well as in Italy.

Cries of "Christ is risen!" went up in Macedonia after midnight, when priests symbolically announced Jesus' victory over death. Archbishop Stefan, head of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, called for peace "in our homeland and among all the people in the world."

While Christians are a tiny minority in Turkey, for historical reasons the Orthodox patriarchate has its home in Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, and the spiritual leader of the world's 200 million Orthodox, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, is based there. Most of the worshippers packing the Church of St. George at a Saturday night Easter vigil service were visitors from Greece.

In Romania, there were calls for Christian unity from Patriarch Teoctist, who heads the influential Romanian Orthodox Church, and from the Eastern Rite Catholics, who follow Orthodox ritual but are loyal to Rome.

"May God's will be fulfilled who wished from the beginning of the world to be one flock and one shepherd. It depends on us that the joy of unity should be in people's hearts not just the calendar," said Ioan Marc, an Orthodox priest in the northwestern city of Cluj.

Pope Benedict has been pushing for greater unity among Christians, especially between Rome and the Orthodox world. Tensions between Orthodox, especially in Russia, and the Vatican kept the late Pope John Paul II from realizing his desire to visit Moscow. Disputes over property in Ukraine and Russia following the demise of Soviet-bloc Communism are among the reasons the pilgrimage was never made.

In the Pacific's predominantly Christian Solomon Islands, struggling with earthquake and tsunami losses, frightened villagers descended from the hills to celebrate Easter.

"Maybe it's a punishment from God," said one worshipper, Furner Smith Arebonato. "Before, there were few people in church. Now, after (the) earthquake, the church is filled with people, some of them never went to church before," she said.

Benedict mentioned the Solomon Islands' tragedy in his message, as he lamented: "How much suffering there is in the world."

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