VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Benedict XVI voiced growing concern over necular drive of Iran, the Darfur tragedy and other conflicts in his first Easter message, as Christians worldwide celebrated their faith`s most joyous day.
But comments from several Christian leaders on the celebration of Jesus Christ`s resurrection showed concern over the apparent discovery of a "Gospel of Judas" that would alter the traditional story of the Passion of Christ, as well as questions of faith raised by the best selling book and upcoming movie "The Da Vinci Code."
Nearly 100,000 pilgrims and tourists packed St Peter`s Square and surrounding streets in the Vatican as Roman Catholic leader Pope Benedict pronounced his first "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) address, broadcast to more than 65 countries.
The pope, also marking his 79th birthday, called for "serious and honest" talks to achieve "an honorable solution" in Iran`s nuclear standoff with the West.
Benedict later made a surprise appearance at the balcony of his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, where he greeted well wishers who sang "Happy Birthday."
Bells meanwhile rang out Easter morning in churches across Europe, from the 12th-century Cathedral in Vienna to Canterbury Cathedral, where Anglican Church head Rowan Williams denounced the plot of the "Da Vinci Code," which explores the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children.
Williams evoked the apparent discovery in ancient scrolls of a "Gospel of Judas" when he criticized media reporting as for "raking over the coals of controversies about the historical basis of faith."
Similar sentiments were expressed by Peru`s Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, who said both the Judas scrolls and the "Da Vinci Code" were profane.
"We are forewarned because this demon is on the loose and continues eating souls," he said of the threat to Catholic beliefs.
Easter celebrations began earlier Sunday across Asia, from the continent`s largest Catholic nation, the Philippines, to communist Vietnam and China, where some worshippers prayed in hiding for fear of official persecution.
In Muslim Afghanistan, gripped last month by a furor over the case of Abdul Rahman who faced the death penalty after converting to Christianity, pockets of underground Christians gathered in secret.
In Jerusalem, it was the busiest Easter weekend since the start of the Palestinian uprising five years ago. An Israeli tourist ministry spokesman said some 90,000 visitors came to the Holy Land, up 20 percent from last year.
Thousands of Christians attended the Easter services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- believed to be Jesus`s burial site -- where the Vatican`s representative, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, prayed for peace among people of all faiths.
In Iraq, dozens of members of Iraq`s diminishing Christian population braved violence to walk to churches to celebrate, including at central Baghdad`s Saint George`s Church, where Father Raad Saleem prayed for "peace and normalcy."
Easter messages in Africa came with a political tone. The archbishop of Dakar condemned the intrusion by police seeking to question a Senegalese opposition leader who was attending a Good Friday service.
In Burundi, the country bishops issued a warning that democracy was at risk "due to the will of some to grab all the power," while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the archbishop of Kinshasa urged the faithful to make good choices in the upcoming October elections.
In India, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in southern Kerala state, many carrying the cross on their backs, prayed at the Saint Thomas Church in Malayattoor.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II sent Easter greetings to the pope and other western Christian leaders, as the Orthodox churches follow a different calendar and will mark their Easter next Sunday.
In heavily Catholic Latin America, the weekend was marked with masses and reenactments of the Passion of Christ.
In Mexico City, some 300,000 believers followed as 5,000 actors put on a Passion play that began Thursday with Christ`s crucifixion and ended Sunday with his rise to heaven.
The pope and other Catholic leaders used the occasion to remember those who suffer from political turmoil.
"May peace finally prevail over the tragic violence that continues mercilessly to claim victims," Benedict said.
He also urged relief for the "dramatic humanitarian situation" in Sudan`s Darfur region and an end to conflicts and oppression across the African continent.