BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI prayed on Sunday that Middle East leaders work towards peace and reconciliation, stressing again the central theme of his visit to Lebanon, whose neighbour Syria is engulfed in civil war. "May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence," the pope said at the end of mass on the final day of his trip to Lebanon. He also appealed to the international community and to Arab countries, in particular, that "as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person."

In his weekly Angelus, a prayer to the Virgin Mary, he said "let us ask her to intercede with her divine Son... for the people of Syria and the neighbouring countries, imploring the gift of peace.

"You know all too well the tragedy of the conflicts and the violence which generates so much suffering. Sadly, the din of weapons continues to make itself heard, along with the cry of the widow and the orphan.

"Violence and hatred invade people’s lives, and the first victims are women and children. Why so much horror? Why so many dead?"

Earlier, the pope said that "in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary.

"I pray in particular that the Lord will grant to this region of the Middle East servants of peace and reconciliation, so that all people can live in peace and with dignity," he added.

And in remarks before flying out for Rome on a Mideast Airlines Flight at 7:25 pm (1625 GMT), he said: "I pray to God for Lebanon, that she may live in peace and courageously resist all that could destroy or undermine that peace."

"I hope that Lebanon will fortify the communion among all her inhabitants, whatever their community or religion, that she will resolutely reject all that could lead to disunity, and with determination choose brotherhood."

An estimated 350,000 people had gathered under a bright warm sun to join the pontiff as he celebrated a solemn mass on his third and final day in Lebanon.

On Saturday, the frail 85-year-old pontiff urged Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims to forge a harmonious, pluralistic society in which the dignity of each person is respected and the right to worship in peace is guaranteed.

He called for a change of heart that involves "rejecting revenge, acknowledging one’s faults, accepting apologies without demanding them and, not least, forgiveness."

He said the universal yearning of humanity for peace can only be realised through community, comprising individual persons, whose aspirations and rights to a fulfilling life are respected.

He said the conditions for building and consolidating peace must be grounded in the dignity of man.

Without pointing fingers, he said "some ideologies undermine the foundations of society. We need to be conscious of these attacks on our efforts to build harmonious coexistence."

Benedict noted that Christians and Muslims have lived side by side in the Middle East for centuries and that there is room for a pluralistic society.