VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis called for an Easter truce in Ukraine, and in an apparent reference to Russia, questioned the value of planting a victory flag "on a heap of rubble".
Pope Francis spoke at the end of a Palm Sunday service for about 50,000 people in St Peter's Square, the first time since 2019 that the public was allowed to attend following two years of scaled back services because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"Put the weapons down! Let an Easter truce start. But not to re-arm and resume combat but a truce to reach peace through real negotiations open to some sacrifices for the good of the people," he said.
In an apparent reference to Russia, he said: "In fact, what kind of victory would be one that plants a flag on a heap of rubble?"
A flare-up of pain in his knee forced Pope Francis, 85, to skip the traditional procession from the obelisk at the centre of the square to the altar on the steps of St Peter's Basilica.
He watched instead while seated at the altar and later limped as he said the Mass.
Pope Francis earlier evoked the horrors of war in his homily, speaking of "mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons ... refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms ... young people deprived of a future ... soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters".
Since the war began in Ukraine, Pope Francis has only mentioned Russia specifically in prayers, such as during a special global event for peace on Mar 25. But he has referred to Russia by using terms such as invasion and aggression.
Moscow describes the action it launched on Feb 24 a "special military operation". Pope Francis has already rejected that terminology, calling it a war.
Some people in the crowd put small Ukrainian flags at the tip of their olive branches and a woman who read one of the prayers near the altar was dressed in the flag's blue and yellow colours.
Palm Sunday commemorates the day the Gospel says Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed by the people, only to be crucified five days later.
It marks the start of Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church on Apr 17 this year. Its numerous events will test the pope's stamina.
Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox. Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter a week later, on Apr 24.
At the end of the service, Pope Francis was driven around the crowd while seated in a open white "popemobile", something he had not done for three years on Palm Sunday because of the pandemic.