VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Wednesday led a day of prayer for peace in Ukraine, calling for dialogue to prevail over partisan interests to resolve the West's standoff with Russia.
Francis last Sunday called on people of all religious to pray on Wednesday for an end to the crisis, saying the tensions were threatening the security of Europe and risking vast repercussions.
"I ask you to pray for peace in Ukraine and to do it often in the course of the day," Francis said at his weekly general audience, adding that he hoped "wounds, fears, and divisions" can be overcome.
As people prayed in Ukraine and elsewhere, Francis said he hoped the "supplications that today rise up to heaven touch the minds and hearts of world leaders, so that dialogue may prevail and the common good be placed ahead of partisan interests".
Going off script, he recalled that more than five million people died in Ukraine during World War Two and that people there had also suffered hunger and "so much cruelty".
This was an apparent reference to the estimated 3-4 million Ukrainians who died in the early 1930s when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin imposed the collectivisation of agriculture and other policies aimed at crushing Ukrainian nationalism.
The tragedy, which a number of countries have recognised as a form of genocide, is called the Holodomor and is also known as the Terror-Famine or the Great Famine.
"They are a suffering people," the pope said of Ukrainians.
The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, was to lead a prayer service in Rome on Wednesday evening organised by the Sant' Egidio community, a Rome-based international charity that promotes peace.
Western leaders have stepped up military preparations and made plans to shield Europe from a potential energy supply shock if Russia invades Ukraine.
Top U.S. and Russian diplomats failed on Friday to make a major breakthrough in talks to resolve the crisis, although they agreed to keep talking.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich)