(Photo: Reuters/Tony Gentile)
Over 100,000 people gathered at St. Peter's Square Saturday following Pope Francis' call for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria even as U.S. President Barack Obama is gathering congressional support to attack the Bashar al-Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons.
"Forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation – these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world! Let us pray for reconciliation and peace, let us work for reconciliation and peace, and let us all become, in every place, men and women of reconciliation and peace!" the pope said, addressing the crowd during the four-hour vigil on Saturday evening.
"War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity," The Vatican Today quoted the pontiff as saying.
Francis appealed last Sunday for a peace vigil for Syria.
A civil war has been waging in Syria for the past two years between the supporters of Assad's regime and rebel forces seeking to overthrow his government. Obama has been pushing for congressional approval to bomb Syria to punish the Assad regime for reportedly using chemical weapons in an attack in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21, which killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children.
However, many believe U.S. attack on Syria can be risky because there's no clearly laid out agenda for transition if President Assad is overthrown. Those fighting against his regime include Islamists, including those from al Qaeda, experts have warned.
Assad's opponents have also heightened attacks on Syria's Christians, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the country's population of 23 million.
About 10 percent of country's population is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot, while about 70 percent of the people are Sunni Muslim. Assad is an Alawite and being supported by Iran as well as Lebanon's Hezbollah among other Shi'a groups. Those seeking his ouster are Sunni Muslims from diverse backgrounds and include Islamists from other countries.
"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!" Pope Francis said Saturday.
"Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation."
Not only Catholics, but also other Christian denominations as well as Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and atheists responded to pope's call.
A special service was held at al-Zaytoun Church in Damascus on Saturday to oppose outside military intervention in the conflict, according to The Associated Press. "This is the start of the victory," Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of Antioch and All East told the Damascus faithful. "No to war. Yes for peace."
Even in Washington, D.C., more than 150 protesters picketed in front of the White House and marched to Capitol Hill to oppose Obama's plan to attack Syria. Protests were held also in cities across the United States.