VATICAN CITY, JUNE 20, 2004 ( John Paul II appealed for greater commitment by the Church and the international community to refugees.

The Pope's appeal resounded today in St. Peter's Square on World Refugee Day, called by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Recalling the theme of this year's World Day, "A Place to Call Home: To Rebuild Lives in Security and Dignity," the Holy Father said that every person needs "a safe environment in which to live."

"Refugees aspire to this but, in several countries of the world, there are, unfortunately, millions who remain in refugee camps, or at least limited in the exercise of their rights," the Pope said in a tired voice from the window of his study.

"Let us not forget our refugee brothers!" he exhorted the thousands of people gathered in the square below. Among them was a large group from Latvia and Lithuania.

"I express my appreciation and encouragement to all those in the Church who work by their side," the Pope said before praying the Angelus with the crowd. "At the same time, I appeal for a renewed commitment by the international community, so that the causes of this painful phenomenon will be removed."

"The mystery of the merciful love" of Christ "helps us to live better today's World Refugee Day," John Paul II said, recalling that last Friday the Church celebrated the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

According to statistics released Thursday by the UNHCR, the number of refugees and others of concern to the U.N. agency fell by 18% to 17.1 million in 2003, the lowest total in at least a decade.

The figure includes 9.7 million refugees; 1.1 million returned refugees; 4.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs); 233,000 returned IDPs; and 995,000 asylum seekers.

By region, at the end of 2003, the UNHCR oversaw 5.5 million people in Europe; 4 million in the region comprising central and southwest Asia, North Africa and the Middle East; 4 million in Africa; 2.3 million in the Americas and the Caribbean; and 1.4 million in the rest of Asia and the Pacific.

The top five asylum countries in 2003 were Pakistan (1.1 million); Iran (985,000); Germany (960,000); Tanzania (650,000); and the United States (452,500).

The UNHCR's global refugee figures do not include Palestinians who fall under the mandate of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.