DAMASCUS Hundreds of Syrian Christians gathered in Damascus on Saturday to pray for peace and protest against possible U.S. military intervention, responding to a call by Pope Francis for a day of prayer and fasting.
During a six-hour service at the al-Zeitouna Church, an ornate Roman Catholic cathedral in the capital's ancient quarter, Syrian-born Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham appealed to Christians to stay in Syria despite the war.
Syria's conflict has grown increasingly sectarian since it started as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 and then evolved into an armed rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad.
Majority Sunni Muslims dominate the uprising while minorities have generally stuck with the government, which is dominated by members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Pope Francis, who two days ago called a military solution in Syria "a futile pursuit", led the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world on Saturday.
Syrian state television broadcast the ceremonies, billing them as a call for a "return to security and peace in Syria and to oppose any foreign military intervention," a reference to a bid by U.S. President Barack Obama to use military force to punish Assad's government for a chemical weapons attack last month.
Television footage showed some worshippers holding Syrian flags and hand-written signs against military intervention. "Hands off Syria," one read.
Clergy at the Damascus service also referenced the recent violence in Maaloula, a historic Christian town in the center of the country where some inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
"If Maaloula has been hurt, then it is a call for the world to hear: ‘Look, this place, this heritage that you love so much, look what they have done to it'," Laham said as some worshippers wept. He implored Syrian clergy and Christians to resist the temptation to emigrate.
"I beg, beg, beg you, our dears, to remain here. We're staying. If you leave, we leave. So we beg you, stop coming to our priests asking for a visa. Young men, young women, remain here. If you leave, who will remain? Only our brethren the Muslims," he said.
"We shall remain. We shall remain. We shall remain. And as we remain, we shall build the new Syria. If we leave, who will build Syria?"
Laham implored the Muslim majority not to consider Christians "a fifth column".
"At this time in particular, we shall be as close as ever," he said.
At the end of the service, one churchgoer held up the Syrian flag and a sign that said: "Jesus salutes the heroic Syrian Army".
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz in Beirut, editing by Mark Heinrich)