VATICAN CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis called for reconciliation in Syria on Saturday as he led a mass peace vigil on St Peter's square and millions of Catholics worldwide were joined by other faiths in a day of fasting and prayer.
"In beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world, let us pray for reconciliation and peace, let us work for reconciliation and peace," the pontiff told tens of thousands who had gathered on the square for the four-hour event, with smaller gatherings held in churches, mosques and synagogues around the globe.
Francis has called for a "cry for peace" from humanity, firmly opposing all fighting including the military strikes against the Syrian regime being pushed by the United States and France.
"War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity."
Earlier in the week he wrote to leaders of the G-20 top world economies meeting in Saint Petersburg, Russia, urging them to "lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution".
Vatican officials have warned international armed intervention could escalate the war into a wider conflagration that would further harm Christian minorities in the Middle East.
The Syrian conflict has killed an estimated 110,000 people since it erupted in March 2011, and the United Nations estimates two million refugees have fled the country.
The pope has repeatedly called for immediate peace negotiations and a process of reconciliation, as well as more humanitarian efforts to help civilians.
The Catholic Church, which counts 1.2 billion faithful worldwide, has mobilised and spread the pope's message through homilies in churches as well as through social media.
"Pray for Peace!" he tweeted on Saturday on his @pontifex account.
The Vatican has even issued instructions for Catholic parents to prepare "sober" family meals with children and grandparents on Saturday that would be "rich in words".
The Vatican's Osservatore Romano daily published an interview with an Italian nun living in Syria who said fasting and prayer could "make one listen to a deeper wisdom".
Prayer "is a powerful weapon, though also a peaceful one," Sister Marta Luisa Fagnani was quoted as saying.
When he announced the initiative on Sunday, Francis urged Christians from other denominations, faithful from other religions and atheists to join in.
Syria's Sunni Muslim leader, Grand Mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun, called for Syrians to join in the prayers, and the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox, also backed the call.
In France, Muslim faithful at the Great Mosque of Paris held prayers for peace on Friday.
Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni said the Jewish community was also "in harmony" with the Vatican.
In Lebanon, the vice-president of the Shiite Higher Council, Sheikh Abdel Amir Qabalan, voiced support, as did Christian leaders across the Balkans and in Latin America.
The appeal has been particularly well received by Christian minorities in the Middle East, where often-divided leaders have been united in their concern about a possible spread of the Syrian conflict and the rise of radical Islam.
Traditionally pacifist and anti-clerical groups, like the Radicals and the Left, Ecology and Freedom party in Italy, also supported the pope's appeal.
A giant peace flag was raised in Assisi in Italy, the hometown of the patron saint of peace, St Francis, whose name the Argentine pope adopted when he was elected in March.
At the start of the ceremony in the Vatican, a large icon of the Virgin Mary was carried across St Peter's Square by a group of Swiss Guards.
Prayers then alternated with moments of silence as a mournful pope bowed his head.
The pope's call is not unprecedented - previous popes have appealed against the Iraq war, the conflicts in the Balkans and the Vietnam War - but it is rare and unusual.
The last time the Vatican called a similar day of prayer and fasting was under late pope John Paul II in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
"This cry from the pope distills the calls coming from the one big family that is humanity," French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who led multiple peace missions on behalf of John Paul II ahead of the Iraq war in 2003, told AFP.