VATICAN CITY—Tens of thousands of people filled St. Peter’s Square for a four-hour Syria peace vigil late on Saturday, answering Pope Francis’ call for a grassroots cry for peace that was echoed by Christians and non-Christians alike in Syria and in vigils around the world.
The Vatican estimated about 100,000 took part in the vigil, making it one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed US-led military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people.
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 goodwill, cry out forcefully: Violence and war are never the way to peace!” he said.
“May the noise of weapons cease!” he said. “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity.”
In the Philippines, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle urged Filipinos to unite with the rest of the world in the search for an end to the Syrian conflict.
“It is time for us Filipinos to be part of the whole world in pushing for this cause,” CBCP News, the official news service of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, quoted Tagle as saying.
“We are all united as one. We might be geographically separated from each other but we are all united by the virtue of our humanity,” Tagle said.
In Damascus, a few dozen Syrian Christians attended a service in al-Zaytoun Church, joining Francis’ invitation for a global participation in the day of fasting and prayer and to oppose outside military intervention in the conflict.
Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of Antioch and All East presided, saying most countries supported a political solution to the crisis in Syria and few wanted military action.
“This is the start of the victory,” he told the Damascus faithful. “No to war. Yes for peace.”
In Washington, at least 150 protesters picketed in front of the White House and marched to Capitol Hill to voice their opposition to a US military strike in Syria.
Antiwar protests were also held in other US cities, including one in New York City’s Times Square and a prayer vigil in Boston, which echoed Saturday’s massive gathering at the Vatican.
Medea Benjamin, a founder of the antiwar group Code Pink, said a cross-section of Americans, many of whom disagree on a variety of issues, were united against military intervention.
“We have suddenly found ourselves united as Americans, overwhelmingly saying we will not let you drag us into another war,” Benjamin shouted into a megaphone in front of the White House.
Francis announced the day of fasting and prayer on Sept. 1, alarmed at the acceleration of US 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 last week.
Francis appealed directly to world powers at the Group of 20 meeting in Russia, urging them to abandon the “futile pursuit” of a military solution in Syria and work instead for a negotiated settlement.
Vigils around the world
Bishops around the world joined Francis in the daylong fast and organized similar vigils in their home dioceses.
In the Philippines, Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villegas called on Filipinos to go to confession and do acts of charity in addition to praying and fasting.
Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said in an earlier interview that Filipinos should be concerned about the civil war in Syria even though the conflict is far away from their country.
In Francis’ native Argentina, human rights and religious groups held a vigil in Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo and in cities across the country.
Vatican Radio reported similar initiatives were taking place throughout Italy, in Cuba and elsewhere.
Even the grand mufti of Damascus, who thanked the Pope for his initiative in a letter earlier last week, invited Muslims to join the fast in solidarity.
Religious, not political
Vatican officials have stressed that Saturday’s event was religious, not political.
But the gathering nevertheless took on the air of an antiwar rally, with protesters holding up Syrian flags and banners in the square reading “Don’t attack Syria” and “Obama you don’t have a dream, you have a nightmare.”
A few rainbow “Peace” flags fluttered in the breeze.
But by the time the vigil got under way, the posters and flags had mainly disappeared as a more religious tone took over, with leaders from a variety of Christian and non-Christian denominations joining cardinals, politicians and ordinary folk for the evening of prayer, hymns and meditation.
“This is already a success, the fact that all of us are here, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, atheists,” a Hindu believer named Anata said.
Pilgrims “made an effort to fast, not to do many things, and come here from all over Italy and Europe. This is already a success,” Anata said.
Francis outlasts many
The Pope entered the square from the basilica steps, forgoing 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.
The 76-year-old Pope held up well throughout the four hours—lasting longer than many who by the vigil’s 11 p.m. conclusion had already gone home.
He thanked those who had stayed to the end for their company, and wished them a good night’s sleep.
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.
Popes against war
That’s not to say popes haven’t taken vigorous antiwar 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 US-led invasion of Iraq urging him to stand down—to no avail.
Francis has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, 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 US-French military strikes will only exacerbate the situation for civilians, particularly Christian minorities.—Reports by AP and Jocelyn R. Uy in Manila