Pope Francis Sunday lit a candle, a symbol of hope, to pray for the children affected by violence and war in Syria and across the Middle East.

“Advent is a time of hope. At this moment I would like to make the hope for peace of the children of Syria, beloved Syria, mine,” the pope prayed on Dec. 2, the first Sunday of Advent.

From a window inside the Apostolic Palace, he lit a large pillar candle, decorated by a craftsman in Damascus with the photos of around 40 Syrian children. “This flame of hope and many flames of hope disperse the darkness of war!” he said.

Pope Francis prayed that Christians will be helped to stay in Syria and the Middle East “as witnesses of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation,” and noted his desire that the “flame of hope” would reach every person who is suffering from conflict around the world.

“The prayer of the Church helps them to feel the proximity of the faithful God and touches every conscience for a sincere commitment to peace,” he continued, adding a prayer that “God, our Lord, [will] forgive those who make war, those who make weapons… and convert their hearts.”

He closed by praying a ‘Hail Mary’ for “peace in beloved Syria” with around 20,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The candle Pope Francis lit is part of an initiative organized by the international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), called “Candles for peace in Syria.” The project included the participation of over 50,000 children of different religions from some of Syria’s most severely war-torn cities.

According to a press release from ACN International, “The children have prayed and painted pictures symbolizing peace on the sides of their candles: crosses, doves and messages of hope conveying to the world their longing for peace. For it is these little Syrian children who have so often been the first victims of the conflict, which is still ongoing.”

ACN has called for people to respond by lighting at home their own candles for peace in Syria and by considering giving to the organization’s fundraising campaign to provide emergency aid, and reconstruction and pastoral support to Christians in Syria.

Pope Francis lit the candle at the end of the Sunday Angelus, when he reminded those present of the beginning of Advent and the beginning of the Church’s preparation for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas.

“Advent,” he said, “invites us to a commitment of vigilant watching, looking outside ourselves, enlarging our mind and our heart to open ourselves to the needs of people, of brothers, and to the desire for a new world.”

“This time is appropriate to open our hearts, to ask ourselves concrete questions about how and for whom we spend our lives,” he said, noting the way in which Christmas is often be lost in consumerism, making it easy for Jesus to come into the world unnoticed.

So, he encouraged, “stay awake and pray: this is how you live this time from today until Christmas” to avoid an interior “sleepiness,” which comes from being stuck thinking only of one’s self and one’s own problems.

“This tiredness, this boredom, this closes [people] to hope,” the pope stated.

“May the Virgin Mary, who brings us Jesus, woman of expectation and prayer, help us to strengthen our hope in the promises of her Son Jesus, to make us experience that, through the great challenge of history, God always remains faithful and even uses human errors to show his mercy,” he concluded.