Vatican: 100,000 attend Syria peace vigil
By Nicole Winfield, AP, Sep 7, 2013
VATICAN CITY (AP)—Tens of thousands of people filled St. Peter’s Square for a four-hour Syria peace vigil late 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 Rome event, making it 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!" 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 Washington, at least 150 protesters picketed in front of the White House and marched to Capitol Hill to voice their opposition to a U.S. military strike in Syria. Anti-war protests were also held in other U.S. cities, including one in New York City’s Times Squares and a prayer vigil in Boston that echoed Saturday’s massive gathering at the Vatican.
Medea Benjamin, a founder of the anti-war group Code Pink, said a cross-section of Americans, many of whom disagree on a variety of issues, are 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.
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.
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 U.S.-French military strikes will only exacerbate the situation for civilians, particularly Christian minorities.