VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15, 2003 ( John Paul II urged Sudan's bishops and Catholic faithful to make their contribution and respond to their country's urgent social needs.

The Pope encouraged the Church's growth in the war-torn country when he received the Sudanese Catholic bishops in audience today, at the end of their five-yearly visit to Rome.

Civil war has scourged Sudan for two decades, causing the death of 2 million people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. The Khartoum government and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) have been locked in armed conflict since 1983, the date when then President Gaafar Nimeiry established the Shariah, or Islamic law.

In 1989, forced Islamization was promoted among peoples of the south, most of whom are Christian or animists.

"The Church in your country is acutely aware of the hardships and pain that afflict those fleeing war and violence -- especially women and children -- and she mobilizes not only her own resources in helping to meet their needs but also draws on the generosity of outside volunteers and benefactors," the Pope said in his address to the Sudanese bishops.

"I would suggest that a solid basis for seeking Church representation in the process of normalization currently under way can be found precisely in the much-needed assistance that she lends to the many refugees and displaced persons who have been forced from their homes and family lands," he added.

By way of example, the Holy Father mentioned the work of Sudanaid, the national relief agency overseen by the Aid and Development Department of the bishops' conference, "which rightly enjoys widespread esteem for the various charitable projects in which it is engaged."

"Moreover, the many contributions that the Church makes to your country's social and cultural life can help you to establish closer and more positive relationships with national institutions," he continued.

"A tentative opening on the part of civil leadership can already be seen in the presence of Christians in the current government, and in the reactivation of the Commission for Interreligious Dialogue," the Pope noted.

"You should do all that you can to encourage this, even as you insist that religious pluralism, as guaranteed by the Sudanese Constitution, should be respected," John Paul II recommended.

"It belongs to the Church to speak out unambiguously on behalf of those who have no voice and to be a leaven of peace and solidarity, particularly where these ideals are most fragile and threatened," he said.

"As bishops, your words and actions are never to be the expression of individual political preferences but must always reflect the attitude of Christ the Good Shepherd," the Holy Father said.

Encouraging the contributions of Catholics to the future, the Pope appealed to the bishops to maintain their "efforts to establish a Catholic university in Khartoum."

Meanwhile, Sudanese peace talks moved closer to an agreement to end the civil war, although doubts remained over its viability because of ongoing fighting in the west of the African country.

A source close to the Kenya talks, between the Sudanese government and rebel factions, told IRIN today that the parties were close to reaching an agreement on wealth sharing, one of the three remaining sticking points.

The much-awaited peace plan between the government and Sudan's rebels might be signed before the end of the December, according to the Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mustafa Osman Ismail. U.S. President George Bush has invited the parties to sign the agreement in the White House.