By Phil Stewart
ROME (Reuters) - Pope Benedict reflected on the persecutionof Catholics across the world during a Good Friday processionaround Rome's Colosseum that threw the spotlight on sufferingamong China's faithful.
The Pope, who has made improving relations with China oneof the goals of his pontificate, presided over the traditionalVia Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession commemorating Christ'scrucifixion and death.
Attended by tens of thousands of people, the solemn,night-time ceremony is one of the main services ahead of Easter-- the climax of the Christian year.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong, who hascriticised a lack of religious freedom in China, wrote themeditations for this year. They paid tribute to those "livingmartyrs" who suffer for their faith.
"In many parts of the world, (the Church) is undergoing thedark hour of persecution," Zen wrote in one of the meditations.
China's 8 to 12 million Catholics are split between achurch approved by the ruling Communist party and an"underground" church wary of government intervention. Beijingand the Vatican severed ties two years after the 1949 Communisttakeover.
Even though there was no explicit reference to China'sCatholics on Friday, the cardinal said last week hismeditations honoured China's Catholics, who "are truly a peoplethat have suffered a lot and are suffering".
PERSECUTION, AL QAEDA THREAT
In the Good Friday ceremony, broadcast on television to 39countries, a young woman from China carried the cross for thepart of the ceremony, under a rainy, cold night sky.
The Pontiff briefly held the cross at the end of theceremony, facing the ancient ruins of the Colosseum.
Zen noted how the Colosseum was once the place where earlyChristians were put to the death.
"Colosseums have multiplied down the centuries, whereverour brothers and sisters, in different parts of the world,continue to be harshly persecuted today," Zen wrote in theforward, which the Pope read aloud.
Earlier this month, an Iraqi archbishop was found dead ineastern Mosul after being kidnapped by gunmen, in an attackIraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed on al Qaeda.
The Pontiff is proceeding with a busy calendar of Easterweekend celebrations despite fresh accusations from al Qaedaleader Osama bin Laden.
The Saudi-born militant leader said in an audio recordingreleased this week that the publication of cartoons mocking theProphet Mohammad was part of a "new crusade" involving PopeBenedict -- a charge the Vatican denied.
Italian security officials said on Friday the message wasbeing treated as a threat against the Pope, but added nochanges were needed to the Pontiff's already tight security.
The German-born Pope is leading the 1.1 billion-memberRoman Catholic Church towards the third Easter of hispontificate.
On Saturday night, Benedict will say an Easter Eve mass,and on Sunday will deliver an "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city andthe world) blessing and message.
(Editing by Alison Williams)