Pope John Paul II criticized Israel for building a barrier in the West Bank, saying the Middle East "does not need walls but bridges."
It was the first time that the pontiff had criticized Israel's construction of the 430-kilometer (270-mile) barrier and the comments made during Sunday prayers came on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's arrival for a visit to Italy.
"The construction of the wall between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people is seen by many as a new obstacle on the road leading to peaceful cohabitation," the pope said.
"In fact, the Holy Land does not need walls but bridges," he said.
Branded by the Palestinians as the "Apartheid Wall", the barrier effectively cuts off large swathes of fertile land and scores of villages from the rest of the Palestinian territory.
The Palestinians see the barrier as an attempt to draw the boundaries of their future state by seizing some of their most fertile land but Israel insists it is merely designed to prevent infiltrations by would-be attackers.
Israel is moving ahead on construction of a new section of the barrier after the latest project was approved by the cabinet last month.
Leading prayers from the balcony of his residence, the pope also lamented the loss of momentum in the Middle East peace process and called for reconciliation.
"Unfortunately, the momentum for peace seems to have stopped," he said.
"Without reconciliation, there cannot be peace."
Copyright 2003 AFP