VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI rejoiced over conversions to Christianity a day after he baptized a prominent Muslim, marking Easter Sunday in a rain-drenched appearance he used to renew calls for peace in Iraq, the Holy Land and Tibet.
A white canopy on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica protected the 80-year-old pontiff from a downpour while thousands of pilgrims, tourists and Romans braved thunder and wind-whipped rain to attend Easter Mass in the square.
On Easter, Christians celebrate their belief in the resurrection of Jesus two days after he was crucified. Thanks to the apostles' preaching about the resurrection, "thousands and thousands of persons converted to Christianity," Benedict said.
"And this is a miracle which renews itself even today," the pope said, hours after a Saturday night Easter vigil service in which he baptized seven adults. The converts included Magdi Allam, a prominent journalist and commentator in Italy who has received death threats for his denunciations of Islamic fanaticism.
Allam, 55, deputy editor of Corriere della Sera newspaper, was born a Muslim in Egypt, but was educated by Catholics and says he has never been a practicing Muslim.
He wrote in a front-page letter published Sunday in Corriere that he was now taking on the middle name Cristiano — Christian in Italian.
He expressed his gratitude to Benedict, calling Saturday "the most beautiful day of my life."
"The miracle of the resurrection of Christ reverberated in my soul, freeing it from the shadows of a preaching where hate and intolerance toward he who is different, toward he who is condemned as an 'enemy,' prevailed over love and respect for your neighbor," Allam wrote.
His criticism of Palestinian suicide bombings prompted the Italian government to provide him with a sizable security detail in 2003 after Hamas singled him out for death, Allam has said in an interview.
The pope himself has come under verbal attack from Islamic militants.
Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a new audio message posted last week, accused Benedict of playing a role in what he called a "new Crusade" against Islam. The Vatican has described the accusation as baseless.
Security during papal public appearances was stepped up in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, and there has been no noticeable increase in protective measures since the new message surfaced.
In a speech at the end of the Mass, Benedict said that on the joyous day of Easter, "in particular, how can we fail to remember certain African regions, such as Darfur and Somalia, the "tormented Middle East, especially the Holy Land, Iraq, Lebanon and finally Tibet, all of which I encourage to seek solutions that will safeguard peace and the common good."
Benedict denounced "selfishness, injustice, hatred and violence" between individuals and peoples.
"These are the scourges of humanity, open and festering in every corner of the planet, although they are often ignored and sometimes deliberately concealed, wounds that torture the souls and bodies of countless of our brothers and sisters," the pontiff said, speaking over the sound of heavy rain in the square.
At times, thunder drowned out a paramilitary band playing in the square and the voices of a choir singing "Alleluja."
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.