Pope Benedict XVI used his traditional Easter message on April 9 to call for an end to the conflict in Syria, while his shorter-than-usual “Urbi et Orbi” blessing and frail appearance spurred speculation that his health might be worsening.
“May the risen Christ grant hope to the Middle East and enable all the ethnic, cultural and religious groups in that region to work together to advance the common good and respect for human rights,” he told about 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
Benedict continued: “Particularly in Syria, may there be an end to bloodshed and an immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation.” Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has been trying to crush an uprising for the past year.
The U.N. estimates that 9,000 people have been killed and has set a deadline this week for government troops to withdraw from rebel-held cities, however the government is seeking guarantees that rebels will also lay down arms.
The Vatican also said Benedict plans to visit Lebanon from Sept. 14 to 16. Vatican officials said the increased focus on the mainly-Muslim region is in line with efforts to improve relations with other faiths.
Benedict also condemned “savage terrorist attacks” on Christian churches in Nigeria and said he hoped “the joy of Easter grant the strength needed to take up anew the building of a society which is peaceful and respectful of the religious freedom of its citizens.”
On April 9, a car bomb explosion near a church in the Nigerian town of Kaduna killed at least 36 people and injured 13, according to news reports.
But the pope, who will turn 85 on April 16, also sparked concern that his health could be deteriorating. His voice was weak, often trailing off at the end of sentences, and he had several awkward pauses in his remarks.
Most notably, the “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city of Rome and to the world”) blessing, which usually includes blessings in dozens of languages, was shortened this year.