CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 2, 2002 ( John Paul II criticized the marginalization of communities of believers and of religions in the European Convention, the body that could end up writing a constitution for the continent.

The Holy Father expressed "concern" and "distress" in seeing that the political and civil forum, initiated in February, falls into the "marginalization of religions, which have contributed and still contribute to the culture and humanism of which Europe feels itself legitimately proud."

"I think that it is at the same time an injustice and an error of perspective," the Pope added. He made his comments in an address when he received Christos Botzios, the new ambassador of Greece to the Vatican.

"To recognize an undeniable historical fact does not at all mean to be unaware of the exigency of a just secularism of states and, therefore, of Europe," the Pontiff added.

He expressed a similar criticism Jan. 10 when he met with all the ambassadors accredited to the Vatican.

John Paul II also expressed his support for the extension of the European Union to include, in particular, the Balkan countries.

"It is evident that the opening to the different European nations will make possible the lasting removal of risks of confrontations in that region, so that the dramatic conflicts that bloodied the end of the 20th century will not be repeated," the Pope said.

According to John Paul II, the "progressive acceptance" of all the European countries in the Union "will consolidate a culture of peace and solidarity, one of the strong points of the European plan."

Ambassador Botzios, 63, a career diplomat, thanked both the Holy Father and Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens for the work of the two Churches "which have joined their voices in favor of European integration, emphasizing that the Christian roots of Europe must be preserved."