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NEW YORK – Pope Francis led a 5-hour prayer vigil for peace in Syria from St. Peter’s Square tonight, joined by a crowd of worshipers estimated at 100,000.

In series of news feeds posted on Twitter, the Catholic News Service reported the pope urged people around the world to leave behind self-interest, opening up to dialogue and reconciliation.

“How I wish all men and women of good will would accept God’s admonition that violence is not answered with violence,’ he reminded the faithful in St. Peter’s Square and around the world.

Pope Francis recalled the year 2000, when various religious groups participated together to plant an olive tree for peace in Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Ares.

“We have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves,” he said, in what appeared to be a veiled criticism of President Barack Obama, “but our conscience has fallen asleep.”

The pope reminded the faithful that when the world is filled with violence, division, disagreement and war, people withdraw into selfishness.

“When human beings take the place of God, the world opens the door to conflict,” he said.

As WND reported yesterday, Pope Francis and the head of the Catholic Church in Syria had decided to take on President Obama, with both issuing direct appeals for the United States not to launch a military strike on Syria.

Pope Francis sent a Twitter message to his nearly 3 million followers declaring: “With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons.” But he also wrote a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the host of the G-20 Summit attended by Obama, appealing to the leaders to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.”

Pope Francis wrote Wednesday:

The leaders of the G20 cannot remain indifferent to the dramatic situation of the beloved Syrian people which has lasted far too long, and even risks bringing greater suffering to a region bitterly tested by strife and needful of peace. To the leaders present, to each and every one, I make a heartfelt appeal for them to help find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.

Rather, let there be a renewed commitment to seek, with courage and determination, a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties, unanimously supported by the international community. Moreover, all governments have the moral duty to do everything possible to ensure humanitarian assistance to those suffering because of the conflict, both within and beyond the country’s borders.

On Sunday, Pope Francis abandoned the traditional religious theme in his Angelus prayer appearance from the window in the papal residence above St. Peter’s Square, calling instead for the worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace held this evening..

To thousands of the faithful assembled below, he said: “My heart is deeply wounded by what is happening in Syria and anguished by the dramatic developments” on the horizon, an apparent reference to the reports that the U.S. and France were considering a military strike to punish the Syrian regime for a chemical weapons attack.

He urged all sides in the Syrian civil war to lay down arms and “listen to the voice of their conscience and with courage take up the way of negotiations.”

Francis was joined by Gregory III, the head of the Greek Catholic Church, who said the U.S. launching a military strike on Syria would constitute “a criminal act” that would “reap more victims” as Islamic jihadists continue to flow into Syria.

Gregory III, the patriarch of Antioch, who oversees the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Syria and Lebanon, said:

We must listen to the pope’s appeal for peace in Syria. If Western countries want to create true democracy then they must build it on reconciliation, through dialogue between Christians and Muslims, not with weapons. This attack being planned by the United States is a criminal act, which will only reap more victims, in addition to the tens of thousands of these two years of war. This will destroy the Arab world’s trust in the West.

What or who have led Syria to this thin red line, this point of no return? Who created this hell in which our people have been living for months? Every day, Islamic extremists from all over the world are pouring into Syria with the sole intent to kill and not one country has done anything to stop them; even the U.S. has decided to send in more weapons. We renew our rejection of any foreign military intervention in the Syrian crisis.

On Friday, Pope Francis tweeted: “All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. #prayforpeace.”

Following Francis’ lead, Cardinal Dolan of New York and leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, wrote to every member of Congress on Thursday, urging them to vote against military intervention in Syria, Time magazine reported.

On Wednesday, the USCCB wrote a letter to President Obama condemning the use of chemical weapons in Syria while insisting Obama should not resort to military intervention, urging him instead to work for a political solution.

“Our focus is on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria and on saying lives by ending the conflict, not fueling it,” the Catholic bishops told Obama.

“We have heard the urgent calls of the Successor of Saint Peter, Pope Francis, and our suffering brother bishops of the venerable and ancient Christian communities of the Middle East. As one, they beg the international community not to resort to military intervention in Syria. They have made it clear that a military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences. Their concerns find a strong resonance in American public opinion that questions the wisdom of intervention and in the lack of international consensus.”

The Catholic bishops stressed their longstanding position that the Syrian people need a political solution.

“We ask the United States to work urgently and tirelessly with other governments to obtain a cease-fire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance, and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities,” the bishops wrote.

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