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Pope Francis calls for world peace in first Easter Mass as pontiff

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    March 31, 2013: In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis delivers the Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world) blessing, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (AP/L'Osservatore Romano)

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    March 31, 2013: Pope Francis, holding the pastoral staff, celebrates the Easter mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (AP)

Pope Francis used his first Easter Sunday Mass as pontiff to make a world peace plea, saying that conflicts have lasted too long in Syria, in addition to urging unity in Africa and the Korean peninsula.

Before a crowd of 250,000 in St. Peter's Square, he also denounced warfare and terrorism across the world, and decried a greedy affluent world looking for `'easy gain."

"And so we ask the risen Jesus, who turns death into life, to change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace," Pope Francis said. "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. 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. How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?"

Pope Francis called for stability in Nigeria, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, where he said many have been forced to leave their homes amid violence.

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.

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.

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.

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."

After the Mass, 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 his Easter speech 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." 

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.