VATICAN CITY —
Pope Francis led the world's Roman Catholics in Palm Sunday celebrations by paying tribute to those killed for their faith, a reference to the victims of Islamic State militants.
Francis, who earlier this month began the third year of his papacy, presided at a colorful procession in St. Peter's Square commemorating the day the Bible says people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus days before he was crucified.
Thousands of people, including the 78-year-old Argentine pope and prelates dressed in red vestments, carried palm fronds and branches in St. Peter's Square on the day that marks the start of Holy Week, which ends on Easter Sunday.
In his homily during the Mass that followed, Francis, who last month denounced the killing of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by Islamic State militants in Libya, paid tribute to those he said were being killed for their faith today.
"We think, too, of the humiliation endured by all those who, for their lives of fidelity to the Gospel, encounter discrimination and pay a personal price," he said, speaking in Italian.
"We think, too, of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted because they are Christians, the martyrs of our own time. There are many of them. They refuse to deny Jesus and they endure insult and injury with dignity," he said.
Alarm over rise of IS
Francis has at times expressed alarm over the rise of Islamic State militants and the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
He has said that the international community would be justified in using military force as a last resort to stop "unjust aggression" but that it should not be up to a single nation to decide how to intervene in the conflict.
The coming week is one of the busiest in the liturgical calendar for the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
On Holy Thursday, he presides at two services, including one at a Rome prison where he will wash and kiss the feet of male and female inmates to commemorate Christ's gesture of humility toward his apostles on the night before he died.
Francis is the first pope to hold the foot-washing service outside a church and to include women and Muslims, which has upset conservative Catholics.
He presides at two Good Friday services, including a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession around the Colosseum.
After celebrating Easter Eve and Easter Day Masses he delivers his "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message.
Meanwhile, bells summoned the faithful to Palm Sunday prayers at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Easter Holy Week and Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
Priests and monks in festive robes led a colorful procession around the ancient stone tomb where tradition says Jesus was buried and rose from the dead. Pilgrims from around the world marched behind them in a fragrant cloud of incense, waving palm and olive branches.
They came from far-away countries, like Jenny Entebbe from Australia.
“Palm Sunday is a wonderful day. Palm Sunday is a very special day for Christians and it is lovely to see how welcoming everyone is to the Christians that come here and the enjoyment that everyone gets,” she said.
Rong Guo, who is from Shanghai in China, said, “It is a special meaning for Christians. Now I can feel how Jesus died for us and how He saved us.”
Jerusalem will be awash with Christian and Jewish pilgrims later this week, as Christian Good Friday coincides with Jewish Passover.
(Some material for this report came from VOA's Robert Berger reporting from Jerusalem.)