As Gaza war rages, Pope Francis leads day of prayer for world peace

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis presided on Friday at a special prayer service for peace in the Middle East and other areas of conflict.

Francis, who convoked the day of prayer and fasting for peace by Christians around the world after the Gaza war erupted this month, led thousands of people in St. Peter's Basilica and many others following on television and social media.

The 86-year-old Roman Catholic leader, who has called for a release of hostages held in Gaza and condemned the killing of Israelis by Hamas militants, prayed to the Virgin Mary to "inspire the leaders of nations to seek paths of peace".

The pope has also deplored the plight of civilians in Gaza and has called for humanitarian corridors and respect for human rights in the enclave.

He prayed that she would "touch the hearts of those imprisoned by hatred; convert those who fuel and foment conflict. Dry the tears of children, be present to those who are elderly and alone; strengthen the wounded and the sick; protect those forced to leave their lands and their loved ones; console the crestfallen; awaken new hope".

At Friday's evening service, he did not mention any specific conflicts.

This week, Francis held a series of phone calls with world leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the need to prevent escalation in the region.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)