VATICAN CITY, NOV. 18, 2001 ( John Paul II today convoked a meeting of the world´s religious leaders, and extended a special invitation to Muslim leaders to attend.

The Pontiff made the announcement to the faithful gathered in St. Peter´s Square for the midday Angelus. The international prayer meeting will take place in Assisi, Italy, on Jan. 24.

A similar event took place in Assisi in October 1986. On that occasion, combatants in numerous conflicts around the world laid down their weapons for 24 hours, at the Pope´s request.

The Bishop of Rome also asked Catholics worldwide to observe Dec. 14 as a day of fasting and prayer for peace.

"The international scene continues to be disturbed by worrying tensions," the Holy Father said from the window of his study. "We cannot forget the intense sufferings that have afflicted and still afflict so many of our brothers and sisters in the world."

Peter´s Successor briefly reviewed the tragedies the world has endured in recent weeks: "thousands of innocent victims in the grave attacks of last Sept. 11; innumerable people forced to abandon their homes to face the unknown and, sometimes, a cruel death; women, the elderly and children exposed to the risk of dying of cold and hunger."

"In a situation made dramatic by the always present threat of terrorism, we feel the need to cry out to God," he said.

"The more insurmountable the difficulties and obscure the prospects, so much the more insistent must our prayer be, to implore God for the gift of mutual understanding, harmony and peace," the Pope added.

He recalled that fasting is part of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition, and gives greater intensity to prayer. He proposed the Dec. 14 day of fasting to coincide with the Muslims´ month of fasting, Ramadan, which began the previous weekend.

John Paul II mentioned the date as an opportunity for Catholics to fast "and pray with fervor to God so that he will grant the world a stable peace, based on justice, and make it possible to find adequate solutions to the many conflicts that trouble the world."

Likewise, the Pope proposed that, "what is saved by fasting be placed at the disposal of the poor, especially those who at present suffer the consequences of terrorism and war."

John Paul II went on to "invite the representatives of the religions of the world to come to Assisi on Jan. 24, 2002, to pray for the surmounting of oppositions and the promotion of authentic peace."

"In particular, we wish to have Christians and Muslims come together, to proclaim before the world that religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence," he said. "Whoever really accepts the word of the good and merciful God, cannot but exclude from his heart every form of rancor and enmity."

John Paul II justified his initiative by saying that "in this historic moment, humanity needs to see gestures of peace and to hear words of hope."

"It is urgent that a common invocation be raised from earth to heaven, to implore the Almighty, in whose hands is the destiny of the world, the great gift of peace, the necessary condition for any serious endeavor at the service of humanity´s real progress," the Holy Father said. He entrusted the success of the initiative to the Blessed Virgin.