On the evening of Sept. 7, days before U.S. lawmakers vote on President Barack Obama's proposal for a military attack on Syria, Pope Francis will lead thousands in St. Peter's Square in a prayer vigil for peace."We will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God's great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world," the pope said Sept. 1, before praying the noon Angelus with a crowd in the square. "Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace."The vigil will include a recital of the rosary, eucharistic adoration, Scripture readings, a papal blessing and remarks by Pope Francis, said the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. During the event, which will last 7 p.m.-11 p.m., priests will be available to hear confessions.For all Catholics, the pope has proclaimed Sept. 7 a "day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East and throughout the world." On fast days, adult Catholics in good health are expected to eat only one full meal.The pope said he was inviting everyone, "including our non-Catholic Christian brothers, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative."According to Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, leader of the country's Sunni Muslims, has approached the papal nuncio in Damascus, Syria, with a request to attend the Rome vigil.Even if that trip proves impossible to arrange, Fides reported, the mufti has called on his followers to pray for peace Sept. 7, "in communion and simultaneously with the pope."Obama has called for military strikes to punish the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which the U.S. blames for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that reportedly killed more than 1,400 people, including children.Over the last two-and-a-half years, according to the United Nations, a civil war between Assad's government and rebel forces has killed more than 100,000 people, driven 2 million refugees out of Syria and displaced another 4.5 million inside the country.Pope Francis said he condemned the use of chemical weapons "with utmost firmness," adding that "those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart.""A judgment of God and also a judgment of history upon our actions are inescapable," he said.But the pope insisted that "never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence."Instead, Pope Francis called on all parties to "follow the path of encounter and negotiation and so overcome blind conflict."Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told Vatican Radio Sept. 2 that a "solution to Syria's problems cannot be that of armed intervention. The situation of violence would not be diminished. On the contrary, there is the risk that it will explode and extend to other countries."The Secretariat of State has invited foreign ambassadors accredited to the Holy See to attend a Vatican briefing on Syria Sept. 5.U.S. bishops: ‘Peace in our hearts for the Syrian people’ Two leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged U.S. Catholics to take up Pope Francis' call to fast and pray for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world Sept. 7.Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, in a Sept. 3 statement expressed anguish over the suffering of the Syrian people and echoed the pope’s exhortation for negotiation and dialogue to resolve Syria's long civil war as the United States contemplates military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.The statement came as President Obama spent Sept. 3 meeting with congressional leaders to outline his justification for a military response to Syria's reported use of chemical weapons Aug. 21. U.S. officials said the attack claimed 1,429 lives."As our nation's leaders contemplate military action, it is particularly appropriate and urgent that we in the United States embrace the Holy Father's call to pray and fast on Sept. 7 for a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria and to violent conflicts everywhere," said Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Pates, chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace."Pope Francis has exhorted 'the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace ... a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people," the statement said.Describing the use of chemical as "particularly abhorrent," the prelates also called for prayers for those who have died and were injured during the chemical weapon attack and applauded the efforts of responding humanitarian workers.Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Pates repeated an Aug. 30 call from the USCCB that reiterated an earlier statement urging the U.S. to seek a cease-fire among Syria's warring factions, begin serious negotiations, provide "impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance and encourage building an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities.""The Holy Father reminds us that 'peace is a precious gift, which must be promoted and protected' and that 'all men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace,'" the statement said."We ask all U.S. Catholics and people of goodwill to join us in witnessing to the hope we have in our hearts for peace for the Syrian people. May our prayers, fasting and advocacy move our nation to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria. And may Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us and the people of Syria," the statement concluded.In the region: A particular urgencyPope Francis' appeal to pray for peace in Syria has a particular urgency for Catholics in the region, who say their countries are most likely to suffer the brunt of any attacks on Damascus. In Bethlehem, West Bank, Father Marwan Di'ides said parishioners at St. Catherine Church would offer special prayers of peace during all eight Masses over the weekend of Sept. 7. "The people are a little bit worried and afraid," he said. "They don't know what will happen or what to do. They know that in the other part of the Holy Land, in Israel, they are giving out gas masks in case of a chemical attack, and here they don't have anything." He said the biggest concern for the people of Bethlehem was how the situation would affect them economically, since any talk of war in the area immediately reduced tourism, which the city's economy largely depends on. In the Israeli coastal city of Jaffa, prayers for peace were planned during Masses Sept. 8, said Father Zaher Aboud of St. Anthony Parish. Father Zaher said that many of the parishioners had already collected their gas masks, and that a lot of the parish's children were worried. He added that St. Anthony was also the parish for Filipino and other migrant workers, so many of his parishioners were not eligible for the gas masks distributed by the Israeli government. The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, meanwhile, encouraged parishes to participate in the Sept. 7 prayers for peace with Pope Francis, who is scheduled to lead a vigil in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. "May our voices of prayers overwhelm the sounds of the war drums," said the Mideast church leaders. In Egypt, Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak told his community to fast and dedicate an hour to prayer for peace in Syria during Catholic Masses nationwide the evening of Sept. 7. "We will all meet for prayer, with the spirit of repentance, asking the Lord to give us peace," the patriarch said, adding that "humanity now needs ... to hear words of hope and peace." In Turkey, which borders Syria, Bishop Louis Pelatre of Istanbul told CNS that the Latin-rite churches he oversees would be participating in the pope's call for prayer and added that "the church has no other way than that of peace." Bishop Pelatre said he worried that any strikes on Syria would only add to the desperate refugee situation the Syrian war had already created. "We can't even cope with the amount of refugees here already," he said of Catholic and other humanitarian efforts to help Syrians who have fled into neighboring countries, including Turkey. On Sept. 3, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees announced the war in Syria had produced more than 2 million refugees. About half a million of them currently reside in Turkey. In Lebanon, which is hosting more than 600,000 refugees, the country's Maronite Catholic bishops praised Pope Francis' call for prayer, fasting and repentance for peace in Syria and his direct appeal to the international community for dialogue and negotiation for peace. They also warned that foreign intervention in Syria posed "grave, grave dangers and repercussions of severe consequences for the countries of the region." —CNS{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0906/syria/{/gallery}