RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Syria is also on the mind of pope Francis. Last night, the pope made a somber appeal to the United States to reject any military strikes against Syria. The Vatican estimates some 100,000 people gathered to pray and meditate during a four-hour long peace vigil in St. Peter's Square in Rome.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was there.
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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Many non-Catholics answered the pope's call for all people of good will to join him for a day of fasting and prayer, as tourists and faithful from all over the world mingled with Romans. In one corner, a group of Muslims quietly recited verses from the Quran. And on the sidelines of the square, the gathering had the air of an anti-war rally with banners reading: Don't Attack Syria, Obama You Don't Have A Dream, You Have A Nightmare.
Francis has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria without blaming either side. His focus has been on the plight of civilians. And in his homily he said: We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep.
POPE FRANCIS: (Through Translator) As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death. They speak of death. Violence and war are the language of death.
POGGIOLI: The somber-looking Francis urged that the noise of weapons cease, saying: War always marks the failure of peace; it is always a defeat for humanity.
POPE FRANCIS: (Through Translator) Forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation, these are the words of peace in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world.
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POGGIOLI: Vatican sources say this is the first such vigil in the modern era. The four-hour service was punctuated by music, the reciting of the rosary and long periods of silence in which the participants were asked to meditate on the need for peace.
Tourist Lynn Davis from Detroit is not a Catholic but she came to the vigil because she opposes military intervention in Syria.
LYNN DAVIS: I think we should just be helping the refugees who are affected by it; giving them medical assistance, financial assistance. But I am not for the missile strike and I'm not for supplying arms to the rebels. We don't even understand both sides - who they really are. And if we don't understand who they are, how can we chose and support one or the other?
POGGIOLI: The vigil capped the Vatican's week-long diplomatic offensive to avert a widening of the Syrian conflict. On Wednesday, the Holy See summoned ambassadors for a briefing by the Vatican's foreign minister. And the pope sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the G-20 leaders, urging them to lay aside what he called the futile pursuit of a military solution in Syria and work for a negotiated settlement.
Massimo Franco, an expert on Vatican foreign policy, says one of the pope's major concerns is the fate of Christians who are being forced to flee much of Syria and the Middle East. The pope's message he says is not directed just at the West.
MASSIMO FRANCO: But to the Middle Eastern countries, the Islamist world, to say, listen, we are not with them, we are for peace.
POGGIOLI: Bishops around the world joined Francis in the daylong fast and organized similar vigils in their home dioceses. And throughout the world, the Vatican's many ambassadors are ramping up the pope's peace message, urging world leaders to focus on negotiations, not on military strikes.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.