BY SIMON CALDWELL
POPE JOHN Paul II spent Easter appealing for peace in the Holy Land, as the bloodshed there escalated.
Back-to-back suicide bombings in Israel prompted the Pope to issue a call for peace during a service in Rome's Coliseum on Good Friday.
He made his most explicit plea later, on Faster Sunday, as Israel responded to the terror attacks by sending 20,000 soldiers and tanks to "isolate" Palestinian President Yasser Arafat at his compound in the West Bank city of Raniallah.
The Pope also declared Easter Monday a day of prayer for peace as Israeli forces extended their military operations to four other West Bank towns, including Bethlehem.
The frail Pontiff made his powerful public statement before giving his Easter blessing Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world), in St Peter's Square, Rome, with a strong voice.
He said: "Christian communities on every continent, with trepidation and hope I ask you to proclaim that Jesus is truly risen, and to work so that peace may bring an end to the tragic sequence of atrocities and killings that bloody the Holy Land, plunged again in these days into horror and despair.
"It seems that war has been declared on peace. But nothing is resolved by war, it only brings greater suffering and death — nothing is resolved through reprisal and retaliation. This is truly a great tragedy.
"No one can remain silent, no political or religious leader. Denunciation must be followed by practical acts of solidarity that will help everyone to rediscover mutual respect and return to frank negotiation.
"In that land Christ died and rose from the dead, and left the empty tomb as a silent but eloquent attestation. By break ing down in himself the hostility, the dividing wall between people, he has reconciled all through the Cross, and now he commits us, his disciples, to remove every reason for hatred and revenge.
"How many members of the human family are still subject to misery and violence. In how many corners of the world do we hear the cry of those who implore help, because they are suffering and dying — from Afghanistan, terribly afflicted in recent months and now stricken by a disastrous earthquake, to so many other countries of the world where social imbalances and rival ambitions still torment countless numbers of our brothers and sisters."
The Pope concluded: "Men and women of the third millennium, let me repeat to you — open your hearts to Christ, crucified and risen, who comes with the offer of peace.
"Wherever the risen Christ enters, he brings with him true peace. May that peace enter, first of all, every human heart, the umoundable depth, not easy to heal. May it permeate relations between all sectors of society, between different peoples, tongues and mentalities, bringing everywhere the leaven of solidarity and love.
"And you, risen Lord, who have overcome tribulation and death, grant us your peace. We know that peace will be fully revealed at the end of time, when you come in glory.
"Nevertheless, wherever you are present peace is already at work in the world. This is our conviction, founded on you, who today have risen from the dead, the Lamb sacrificed for our salvation. You ask us to keep alive in the world the flame of hope."
The Pope returned to the subject of peace in his Easter Monday address when he prayed that the peace of the risen Lord would "reach every human heart and restore hope to all who are suffering".
"Sad and worrying news which has disturbed the atmosphere of Easter, which should be a feast of peace, joy and life continues to come," he said.
"With great apprehension the Pope is close to these brothers and sisters of ours, as is the whole Church, which prays and works so that there will soon be an end to this painful Calvary."
During the Pope's Good Friday liturgy, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, prayed to Jesus for the "Palestinian people and the people of Israel".
In his homily, he said: "May the violence cease in the city that was bathed in your blood."
Worldwide speculation over the health of the Pope, who is 82 next month, was also rife throughout Easter, with claims ranging from proposed surgery on an arthritic knee to an alleged loss of control of the Vatican.
However, an official Vatican spokesman said: "The Pope is suffering from Parkinson's disease and while his body may be showing these effects I can assure you the Holy Father's mind is as sharp as ever."
The Pope presided over the three-hour Easter Vigil Mass himself, during which he baptised seven adults and two children into the Church.
The Vatican installed a lower and wider platform in front of the main altar inside the Basilica of St Peter so John Paul did not have to climb the stairs, and provided him with a mobile platform so he could move along the atrium once the paschal candle had been lit.
As The Catholic Herald went to press, Palestinian sources said a Catholicpritst and six nuns had been wounded in Bethlehem.