VATICAN CITY, MARCH 25, 2003 ( John Paul II rejected recourse to war as a means to resolve differences -- with the exception of legitimate defense -- and urged respect for humanitarian law in armed conflicts.

"It is precisely when arms are unleashed, that the need becomes imperative for laws that make military operations less inhuman," the Pope said in a message sent to a course for military chaplains, organized by the Holy See in Rome. The course runs today and Wednesday.

The Holy Father's words came at a crucial moment in the development of events in the Anglo-American military operations in Iraq.

The course of formation in humanitarian law, organized jointly by the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is being attended by 41 chaplains from all over the world.

The course has been in preparation since 1999, in keeping with the commitment assumed that year by the Holy See during the 37th International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.

In his message, the Pope said the principles that constitute international humanitarian law today have been able "to develop thanks to the maturation of principles inherent to the Christian message," particularly the appreciation of the dignity of the human person.

These principles teach that "even in the hardest of battles, it is always possible and, therefore, a duty to respect the dignity of the military adversary, the dignity of civilians, and the indelible dignity of each human being involved in armed conflicts."

"In this way, reconciliation necessary for the re-establishment of peace after the conflict is favored," he added, defending humanitarian law not just as "a juridical code, but above all as an ethical code."

After mentioning the "difficult hour of history, when the world finds itself once again hearing the clash of arms," John Paul II said: "thinking of the victims, the destruction, and the suffering caused by armed conflicts always causes great concern and pain."

"It should be clear by now that war used as an instrument of resolution of conflicts between states was rejected, even before the Charter of the United Nations, by the conscience of the majority of humanity, except in the case of defense against an aggressor," the Pope stressed.

"The vast contemporary movement in favor of peace -- which, according to Vatican Council II, is not reduced to a 'simple absence of war' -- demonstrated this conviction of men of every continent and culture," he added.

In this connection, the Holy Father said that "the strength of different religions in sustaining the search for peace is a reason for comfort and hope."

"In our view of faith, peace, even if it is the result of political accords and understanding among individuals and peoples, is a gift from God that we must constantly invoke with prayer and penance," he said. "Without a conversion of heart, there is no peace! Peace is only achieved through love!"

"Right now we are all asked to work and pray so that war disappears from the horizon of humanity," he concluded.