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, making it one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed US-led military action against the Syrian regime following the Aug. 21 alleged 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.
“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 US military strike in Syria. Anti-war protests were also held in other US cities, including one in New York’s Times Square and a prayer vigil in Boston, Massachusetts.
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.
Francis announced the day of fasting and prayer on Sunday last week, alarmed at the acceleration of US threats to strike Syria after the alleged chemical weapons attack. Since then, the Vatican has ramped up its peace message, summoning ambassadors for a briefing this week. Francis appealed directly to world powers at the G20 meeting in Russia, urging them to abandon the “futile pursuit” of a military solution in Syria and work instead for a negotiated settlement.
Vatican officials have stressed that Saturday’s event was religious, not political.
However, the gathering nevertheless took on the air of an anti-war 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.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is readying more intense and longer attacks on Syria than originally planned, set to last three days, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday.
War planners now aim to unleash a heavy barrage of missile strikes, to be followed by additional attacks on targets that may have been missed or remain standing after the initial launch, the Times cited officials as saying.
Two US officers told the newspaper that the White House has asked for an expanded target list to include “many more” than the initial list of about 50 targets.
Pentagon planners are now considering using US Air Force bombers, as well as five US missile destroyers patrolling the eastern Mediterranean Sea, to launch cruise missiles and air-to-surface missiles from far out of range of Syrian air defenses, according to the report.