ASSISI, Italy, JAN. 24, 2002 ( Presiding over a historic Day of Prayer for Peace, John Paul II appealed for the commitment of all religious leaders to dispel the "dark clouds of terrorism, hatred, armed conflict."

In a strong voice the Pope addressed more than 200 leaders of the most important religions, gathered for a historic event that the Holy Father convoked in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and fallout.

"The shadows will not be dissipated with weapons; darkness is dispelled by sending out bright beams of light," as "hatred can only be overcome through love," the Pope said in his address. He mentioned the word "peace" 28 times in the talk.

His words were heard by thousands of pilgrims of different religions sheltered in a steel structure built for the occasion in front of the 14th-century Basilica of St. Francis. Thousands more followed the event live, via giant TV screens, at various churches around Assisi.

"Peace! Humanity is always in need of peace, but now more than ever, after the tragic events that have undermined its confidence, and in the face of persistent flashpoints of cruel conflict that create anxiety throughout the world," the Holy Father said.

Given the situation, John Paul II continued, it "is essential, therefore, that religious people and communities should in the clearest and most radical way repudiate violence, all violence, starting with the violence that seeks to clothe itself in religion, appealing even to the most holy name of God in order to offend man."

"To offend against man is, most certainly, to offend against God," he said. "There is no religious goal that can possibly justify the use of violence by man against man."

Lastly, the Holy Father called for profound prayer. "If peace is God´s gift and has its source in him, where are we to seek it and how can we build it, if not in a deep and intimate relationship with God?" he asked.

"To build the peace of order, justice and freedom requires, therefore, a priority commitment to prayer, which is openness, listening, dialogue and finally union with God, the prime wellspring of true peace," the Pope said.

Before the papal address, some religious leaders offered their testimony of peace. The first was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the "first among equals" in Orthodoxy.

Other speakers who followed the Ecumenical Patriarch included Muslim leader Ali Elsamman. He spoke on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, of the Al Azhar mosque, the highest Islamic authority of Egypt. He emphasized that it is indispensable to promote justice and law, explaining that peace is directly and inseparably related to justice.

American Rabbi Israel Singer began by acknowledging that only John Paul II could convoke a meeting of such characteristics, and added: "No religion obliges us to kill indiscriminately and all those who have said the contrary have done so by distorting the religions in whose name they spoke."

Other speakers were Bishop Richard Garrard, who read a testimony of the Archbishop of Canterbury; Ishmael Noko, of the World Lutheran Federation, and Setri Nyomi, of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

Geshe Tashi Tsering was the Dalai Lama´s representative, for Buddhism; Chief Ainadou Gasseto represented African traditional religions; and Didi Talwalkar, Hinduism.

Chiara Lubich and Andrea Riccardi were among the Catholic representatives. Bishop Ioan Salagean represented the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate.

At the conclusion of the speeches, the religious groups dispersed around St. Francis´ city to pray for peace, each according to its own rite.

John Paul II explained that there were no common moments of prayer, as the meeting in no way favored "relativism or syncretism of any kind." Rather, it was an effort to be "more deeply aware of the duty to bear witness and to proclaim," he said.

After the group prayer meetings, the religious leaders dined together and then issued a solemn joint declaration against the use of violence, especially for supposedly religious reasons.

The religious leaders later returned to the Vatican on the same "peace train" (as the press dubbed it) which took them to Assisi. On Friday they will lunch in the papal apartments by invitation of John Paul II.