VATICAN CITY, FEB. 23, 2003 ( John Paul II called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace, especially in the Middle East, to be observed on Ash Wednesday, March 5.

"For months the international community has been living in great apprehension because of the danger of a war that might disturb the whole of the Middle East region and exacerbate the tensions that, unfortunately, are already present at the beginning of the millennium," the Pope said today, explaining the reasons for his decision.

The Holy Father made this announcement before praying the midday Angelus with the crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square.

"It is a duty of believers, regardless of the religion to which they belong, to proclaim that we will never be able to be happy if we are against one another; the future of humanity will never be able to be assured by terrorism and the logic of war," the Pope continued.

"We Christians, in particular, are called to be like guardians of peace in the places where we live and work," he explained. "We are asked, that is, to be alert, so that consciences will not yield to the temptation to egoism, falsehood and violence."

Because of this, the Pontiff invited "all Catholics to dedicate with special intensity next March 5, Ash Wednesday, to prayer and fasting for the cause of peace, especially in the Middle East."

"Above all, let us implore God for the conversion of hearts and a generous view in just decisions to resolve with adequate and peaceful means the contests that hamper the pilgrimage of humanity in our time," he said.

"In every Marian shrine an ardent prayer for peace will be raised to heaven with the praying of the holy rosary," the Pope added. "I trust that also in parishes and families the rosary will be prayed for this great cause on which the good of all depends."

"This common invocation will be accompanied by fasting, expression of penance for the hatred and violence that contaminate human relations," John Paul II noted.

"Christians share the ancient practice of fasting with many brothers and sisters of other religions, who in this way want to be despoiled of all pride and dispose themselves to receive from God the greatest and most necessary gifts, among which, in particular, is that of peace," the Holy Father stressed.

The convocation to prayer and fasting is a continuation of the marathon of meetings and contacts undertaken by the Pope and his collaborators to avoid the outbreak of war against Iraq and to try to put an end to the violence in the Holy Land.

In recent days John Paul II has received, among others, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and German Foreign Affairs Minister Joschka Fischer, the current president of the U.N. Security Council.

The Holy Father also sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray to Iraq, to meet personally with Saddam Hussein and with the local Catholic community.