ASSISI, Italy (Reuters) - Pope Benedict made one of his strongest peace appeals on Sunday, calling for an end to all wars and saying the people of the Middle East have had enough of “the horrors of combat, terrorism and blind violence”.
The Pope made his appeal at the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi, the medieval playboy who abandoned a life of luxury to embrace poverty, peacemaking and preaching.
During his first visit as pontiff to the Umbrian hill town which symbolizes peace, he also called for more inter-religious dialogue and urged Catholics to shore up their faith and shun what he called the “many seductions” of the modern world.
“I consider it my duty to launch from here a pressing and heartfelt appeal for a stop to all armed conflicts that bloody the earth,” he said after celebrating an outdoor mass in front of the pink and white stone basilica where the saint is buried.
“May weapons be silenced and may hate give way to love everywhere. May offence give way to forgiveness and discord to unity,” he said at the mid-point of a day-long visit to one of Christianity’s most visited and venerated places.
Speaking to thousands of people in a small square in front of the basilica, which has been completely restored after four people were killed when part of the ceiling collapsed in a 1997 earthquake, the Pope said he heard the cry of the suffering.
“Our thoughts turn in a particular way to the Holy Land, so loved by Francis, to Iraq, Lebanon and the whole Middle East,” Benedict said.
“The populations of those countries have known for too long the horrors of combat, of terrorism, of blind violence, of the illusion that force can resolve conflicts, of the refusal to listen to the reasons of other people and grant them justice,” he said.
Dressed in green and white vestments, he called on the international community to promote “responsible and sincere dialogue ... to put an end to so much pain and give back life and dignity to persons, institutions and populations”.
Millions of people visit Assisi every year and even many non Christians find walking along its steep and narrow pink cobble stoned streets an almost mystical experience because of the town’s history and association with peace and nature.
The Pope had lunch with the Franciscan monks in their refectory and discussed the international situation with Prime Minister Romano Prodi, a practicing Catholic.
The purpose of the Pope’s visit was to mark the 800th anniversary of what is known as the conversion of St Francis.
Francis, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, had lived a carefree life as a soldier and playboy until one day while praying before a crucifix in a ruined wayside chapel he heard a voice say: “Go, Francis, and repair my house”.
He later gave up all worldly possessions and formed a fraternity to help the poor. Over the centuries it would become one of Christianity’s most esteemed religious orders.
Francis, who became known as “the little poor one of Assisi,” died in 1226 and was declared a saint of the Roman Catholic Church two years later.