VATICAN CITY, Holy See - Pope Francis prayed for tens of thousands of coronavirus victims in an unprecedented livestream Easter Sunday message delivered from a hauntingly empty Vatican to a world under lockdown.
The 83-year-old pontiff spoke softly at a ceremony attended by just a handful of priests and a small choir that was spaced out across the expansive marble floor of Saint Peter's Basilica.
The pandemic raging outside the Vatican's locked gates has killed more than 110,000 people and left billions confined to their homes.
The pope's message was livestreamed for the first time -- a bow to technology in the face of a new illness that has transformed society and altered the way religion is observed.
"For many, this is an Easter of solitude lived amid the sorrow and hardship that the pandemic is causing, from physical suffering to economic difficulties," Francis said.
"This disease has not only deprived us of human closeness, but also of the possibility of receiving in person the consolation that flows from the sacraments."
A few priests also gathered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City -- under lockdown like the Vatican -- to pray at the spot where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected on Easter.
Most of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics were in forced confinement as the pope spoke and few of the world's churches were open on Christianity's holiest day.
Bells rang across a still and completely silent Rome when mass began.
'UNABLE TO BID FAREWELL'
The pope pleaded with world leaders to forget their differences and call back their armies during a global health emergency of a magnitude not seen in 100 years.
"This is not a time for division," Francis said.
"May Christ enlighten all who have responsibility in conflicts, that they may have the courage to support the appeal for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world."
Health considerations required global powers to ease crippling economic sanctions imposed against their adversaries, he said -- a possible reference to those weighing on pandemic-hit Iran.
He called for a "reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations" and for European nations to show the same "solidarity" they did in the wake of World War II.
"After the Second World War, this beloved continent was able to rise again," he said.
"The European Union is presently facing an epochal challenge, on which will depend not only its future but that of the whole world."
The official toll across Europe passed 75,000 moments before Francis spoke.
But it rose by just 431 on Sunday in Italy -- an encouraging sign that the continent's hardest-hit nation had survived the worst despite registering 19,899 deaths.
The Argentine-born pontiff offered a special message of consolation to those "who mourn the loss of their loved ones (but) to whom, in some cases, they were unable even to bid a final farewell".
SINGING FROM CONFINEMENT
The pope's virtual Easter Sunday message was the most vivid example of religious improvisation in the age of social distancing and confinement.
The faithful followed his advice and found creative solutions.
Portuguese priest Nuno Westwood took to the streets of a Lisbon suburb in a convertible microcar to bring the Easter message to parishioners.
In the southern Spanish city of Seville, some faithful left wreaths of flowers outside the locked churches from where festive processions had normally departed.
The great Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli livestreamed a special concert from the magnificent but deserted square facing Milan's lacelike Duomo Cathedral.
In Britain, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby -- the spiritual leader of Anglicans -- celebrated mass with thousands of followers on a video recorded from his kitchen.
A parish near the Philippines' capital Manila pasted the empty pews with family photos that the faithful had emailed to the priest.
But in Paris, dozens of worshippers broke a curfew to attend a secret Easter Mass late Saturday.
Police sources told AFP that the guilty priest was booked and fined while others were let go with a warning.
State television in Lebanon broadcast mass under lockdown from an empty church north of Beirut.
Catholics in neighboring Syria -- where celebrations had continued in Christian quarters of Damascus despite years of agonising war -- watched the Facebook Live mass posted by the country's patriarch.
Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told a live mass broadcast that the south Asian country's Roman Catholic Church had forgiven suicide bombers behind attacks that killed at least 279 people last Easter.
"We offered love to the enemies who tried to destroy us," he said.
© Agence France-Presse