VATICAN CITY (AP) — Tens of thousands of people answered Pope Francis' call for a four-hour Syria peace vigil in St. Peter's Square late Saturday, joining Christians and non-Christians alike in similar vigils around the world.
About 70,000 people, according to an estimate by the Vatican, were present at the start of the vigil. It was believed to be one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed U.S.-led military action against the Syrian regime following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Francis spent most of the vigil in silent prayer, but during his speech he issued a heartfelt plea for peace, denouncing those who are "captivated by the idols of dominion and power" and destroy God's creation through war.
"This evening, I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: Violence and war are never the way to peace!"
Rainbow "Peace" flags fluttered in the evening breeze outside the square and religious leaders from a variety of Christian and non-Christian denominations joined cardinals, politicians and ordinary folk for the evening of prayer, hymns and meditation.
The pope entered the square from the basilica steps, foregoing his usual high-spirited drive through in his open car — an indication of the sobriety of the evening, which capped a day of fasting for the pontiff and others.
Francis announced the day of fasting and prayer Sept. 1, alarmed at the acceleration of U.S. threats to strike Syria after the chemical weapons attack.
Since then, the Vatican has ramped up its peace message, summoning ambassadors for a briefing by the Holy See foreign minister on its position on the war. Francis appealed directly to world powers at the Group of 20 meeting in Russia, urging them this week to abandon the "futile pursuit" of a military solution in Syria and work instead for a negotiated settlement.
Bishops around the world joined Francis in the daylong fast and organized similar vigils in their home dioceses. Vatican Radio reported they were taking place in Francis' native Argentina, throughout Italy and elsewhere. Even the grand mufti of Damascus, who thanked the pope for his initiative in a letter earlier this week, invited Muslims to join the fast in solidarity.
The peace vigil marked something of a novelty for the Vatican: Nothing of its kind has ever taken place in St. Peter's Square, though popes past have participated in daylong peace prayers in places like Assisi, known for its peace-loving native son and the pope's namesake, St. Francis.
That's not to say popes haven't taken vigorous anti-war positions in the past: Pope Paul VI famously uttered the words "War never again, never again war" at the United Nations in 1965 as the Vietnam War raged, a refrain that has been repeated by every pope since. Pope John Paul II sent an envoy to President George W. Bush on the eve of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq urging him to stand down — to no avail.
Vatican officials have stressed that Saturday's event was thoroughly religious, not political. But Francis' message has carried distinct political overtones: He has condemned the use of chemical weapons, but has been careful not to lay blame on any one side, exhorting world leaders instead to focus on the plight of Syrian civilians and the need in general to end the violence.
Other church officials, both at the Vatican and in dioceses, have been more pointed in their criticism of any internationalization of the conflict, saying U.S.-French military strikes will only exacerbate the situation for civilians, particularly Christian minorities.
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