Pope Urges World to Avoid Conflict in Iraq
By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters - 5 March) - Believers of different religions around the world put their differences aside on Wednesday to heed Pope John Paul's call for a day of prayer and fasting against war in Iraq.
From Rome to London, from Paris to Berlin, faithful, many of them non-Catholic, adhered to the pope's invitation to make this Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a day against war.
The 82-year-old pope urged leaders to make every effort to spare humanity what he called "a dramatic conflict" in Iraq.
"Everyone has to knowingly assume their responsibility and make a common effort to spare humanity another dramatic conflict," he said at his general audience.
"As we enter the period of Lent, we must take into account the international situation, which is buffeted by threatening tensions of war," the pope said.
Minutes after the pope spoke, demonstrators unfurled a 25-meter (75-foot), rainbow-colored peace flag under his window in St. Peter's Square.
"No War, No War, No War," they chanted, their numbers swelled by pilgrims and tourists leaving the modern audience hall where they heard the pope make his appeal.
Wednesday marked the first day of the 40-day period of Lent, during which Christians are called to make some form of sacrifice, usually by giving up food for a short period.
ANGLICANS HEED CALL
In Britain, the General Synod of the Anglican Church called on its 70 million followers worldwide to observe the day.
The newly enthroned leader of the Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has been an outspoken opponent of Prime Minister Tony Blair's push toward war.
In Geneva, the World Council of Churches, which speaks for most Christian faiths other than the Roman Catholic, also urged the faithful to pray for peace on Wednesday.
Churches in Paris, including Notre Dame cathedral, put up posters proclaiming Wednesday as the day of prayer for peace.
Paris Cardinal, Jean-Marie Lustiger, asked believers to say a lunchtime prayer for peace through the Lent period.
"Why do it? Because in order to solve conflicts peacefully instead of waging war we must overcome, in the hearts of all men, egoism, pride and arrogance, hate, lies, violence," he said in a statement.
The pope's appeal at the Vatican came as Washington plowed ahead with a huge military build-up in the Gulf region in preparation for an attack on Iraq.
The pontiff has thrust himself into the center of diplomatic activity to avert war and has held talks with several world political leaders. Last month he sent a Vatican peace envoy for talks with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Many Italians adhered to the pope's call to fast for peace. Special services were held throughout Italy, including one in parliament, but most deputies appeared to be having lunch.
Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of German Catholic bishops, said there was widespread support in his country.
The pope's appeal coincided with another peace envoy's visit to President Bush.
Cardinal Pio Laghi was due to meet Bush later on Wednesday to urge him to step back from the brink of war.
The White House said Bush, a devout Christian who reads the Bible nearly every morning for inspiration, "looks forward to receiving and greeting" Laghi, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States.