VATICAN CITY - Leaders of world religions appealed to believers in all faiths to work to avert a conflict in Iraq as anti-war protests gathered pace around the world.
"As conflicts divide neighbors and nations and the threat of war hangs over us like a shadow, too many people see and employ religion as a force of divisiveness and violence, rather than a force for unity and peace," the representatives said in a concluding statement issued Saturday at the end of a symposium.
The Vatican-sponsored meeting was attended by representatives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Sikhism.
It concluded as demonstrators staged one of the biggest waves of global anti-war protests since the United States and close ally Britain began pouring warplanes, ships and tens of thousands of troops into the Gulf region.
"As conflicts divide neighbors and nations and the threat of war hangs over us like a shadow, too many people see and employ religion as a force of divisiveness and violence, rather than a force of unity and peace," the concluding statement said.
The 38 leaders from 15 countries who attended the three-day meeting appealed for diplomacy and persuasion to correct injustices and respond to international threats.
"Opting for peace does not mean a passive acquiescence to evil or compromise of principle. It demands an active struggle against hatred, oppression and disunity, but not by using methods of violence. Building peace requires creative and courageous action," the statement said.
The United States has threatened a war on Iraq to force Baghdad to come clean on its alleged nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs. Iraq denies that it has any.
Pope John Paul has put the Vatican on a diplomatic collision course with the United States by condemning the possibility of a war, saying it was avoidable and would be a "defeat for humanity."
In an address to diplomats last week, the leader of the world's one billion Roman Catholics said conflict always had to be considered the very last option.
IRAQ WAR NOT SEEN AS 'JUST'
Days later, a Vatican-sanctioned journal attacked the United States, saying that Washington was motivated by economics and that a war would spark a wave of terrorism and destabilize the Middle East.
The Pope and other Christian leaders have made clear they would not consider an attack on Iraq a "just war," which in Christianity means that use of military force meets rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy.
To be considered a "just war" by these leaders, all other means must be exhausted and found ineffective and the type of force used must be proportionate to the wrong it tries to rectify.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington D.C. told the gathering that lasting peace will never be achieved until the world addresses the "root causes of war and conflict."
He listed these as the rich-poor chasm, oppression of minorities and the "social evils of globalisation."
The last day was marred by the absence of Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the highest-ranking Catholic in the Holy Land.
Sabbah, who is Palestinian and has often criticized Israel, decided not to leave for Rome after security checks at Tel Aviv's airport that he said were excessive for a diplomat.
The Vatican newspaper accused Israeli security officials of not respecting a Vatican diplomatic passport.
By Albert H. Lee