Pope John Paul II stepped up his crusade against a looming war in Iraq, urging the world's Christians to stage a fast for peace on the same day as his envoy is to meet US President George W. Bush.
The pope said the day of fasting on Wednesday would remind people of the long years of suffering endured by Iraqi citizens as a result of the international embargo against the country.
The fast will coincide with a meeting Wednesday between Bush and the pope's special envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, who the pope has entrusted with a special plea to restrain the US leader from waging war against Iraq.
The fast is the latest in a series of efforts to avert a war by the pope, who has emerged as one of the most prominent opponents against a US-led conflict with Iraq.
In recent weeks, he has received leaders ranging from Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the US' key ally on Iraq, and Tuesday held talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The pontiff said the day of fasting Wednesday should "provide greater understanding of the difficulties and sufferings or our brothers confronted by hunger, misery and war."
The appeal has also been passed on by World Council of Churches in Geneva and the Synod of the Church of England.
An informal opinion poll carried out on a private Italian television channel also found that 55.7 percent of viewers said they were willing to follow the appeal to fast.
Laghi's meeting with Bush Wednesday comes amid insistences from Washington that the pope's anti-war pronouncements will not be able to sway the United States from its hardline stance on Iraq.
Jim Nicholson, US envoy to the Holy See, on Tuesday confirmed that the pope's appeal through Laghi would not influence American thinking.
"Cardinal Laghi's mission may be useful, but Iraq must disarm," he said on the private Italian television channel "La 7."
"If Saddam Hussein were to leave his country, that would be a perfect solution," Nicholson added.
Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a firm supporter of the US stance on Iraq, became the latest of the world's leaders Tuesday to hold talks on the crisis with the pope.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the meeting "allowed an exchange of views on the current international situation, with special emphasis on the crisis in Iraq."
The pope had already held talks Thursday with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, another key supporter of the US position on Iraq and holder of a crucial seat on the UN Security Council.
Officials at the Vatican have said the 82 year-old-pope has thrown all his energy into efforts to stop the war, despite the crippling effects of his Parkinson's disease.
"He has been more alert in the last few days, as though he wanted to give us more strength," Laghi said.
The pope has adopted a vocal stance of principled opposition against a military conflict with Iraq, saying the future of humanity can never be ensured by the logic of war.
"Marred by long-standing and seemingly relentless conflicts, the world stands on the brink of yet another war," the pope wrote last month in a pessimistic message to newly-enthroned Anglican leader Rowan Williams.
Separately, the Vatican Tuesday denied that the pope had planned to make a personal address to the United Nations Security Council if his envoy failed to deter Bush from going to war.
"There are no plans for the Holy Father to visit the United Nations," a spokesman told journalists.
Copyright 2003 AFP