Coloured balloons were released by children accompanying Pope Francis on the last Sunday of January

Coloured balloons, rather than doves, were released by children accompanying Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square yesterday in a gesture of peace.

Doves have been traditionally released by children at the Vatican on the last Sunday in January.

Last year, the doves were attacked by a crow and a seagull. Animal rights campaigners lobbied Pope Francis to stop the practice, pointing out that his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, is the patron saint of animals.

As the children released the balloons from the window of the papal studio, Pope Francis remarked: “Here’s the balloons that mean ‘peace’.”

A child read a speech on the theme of peace and a hot air balloon containing messages of peace was released.

The tradition of releasing doves was established by St John Paul II to draw attention to the need for peace in the world.

Last week, the Vatican released a statement saying the doves had been replaced by balloons but did not explain why the switch occurred.