Pope Francis is leading a mass prayer vigil in St. Peter's Square Saturday night, building on his calls to avoid violence in the escalating conflict over Syria. Tens of thousands of people have come to the Vatican on what the pontiff has declared a day of fasting and prayer in the name of peace.
Speaking to the crowd Saturday, Francis said that when people withdraw into selfishness, the world fills with violence, division, disagreement and war, according to updates from the Catholic News Service. The agency estimates that when the pope's address began, more than 70,000 people were in St. Peter's Square.
From Rome, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports for our Newscast unit:
"Last Sunday, Pope Francis spoke out in anguish for the victims of a chemical weapons attack in Syria. But he strongly opposes a Western military intervention saying, war begets war, violence begets violence.
"In a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the G-20 countries, the pope asked them to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution and to speedily enact initiatives promoting peace through negotiations.
"In addition to tonight's four–hour-long vigil, Francis has urged Christians, believers of other faiths as well as all people of goodwill to join him in fasting for peace in Syria."
The vigil comes as the United States and its allies debate how to rebuke Syria for what they say is a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people on Aug. 21. As we reported earlier today, countries in the European Union have joined in blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for the attack.
Syria and its allies, including Russia, have said there is no evidence that the nation attacked its own citizens — and have warned of the dangers of further destabilizing the sensitive Middle East.
Warnings have also come from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said Friday, "I must warn that ill-considered military action could cause serious and tragic consequences, and with an increased threat of further sectarian violence."
United Nations inspectors who left Syria a week ago have not publicly revealed the results of tests on samples they took from the scene of the alleged attack. A recent CNN report by Josh Levs details the multiple claims made regarding a chemical attack in Syria.