VATICAN CITY, JUNE 30, 2004 ( John Paul II looked to assure Iraq's new president of the support of the entire Catholic Church, even as the Pope appealed for respect of religious freedom.

The Holy Father expressed this in a telegram sent on his behalf by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, to the new head of state of Iraq, Ghazi al-Yawer.

The papal message said that the Holy Father "prays that, as a new chapter begins in the life of the nation, the hopes of the Iraqi people for peace, freedom and prosperity will soon be fulfilled."

Ever since the end of formal military operations in Iraq, John Paul II has called for a speedy return to Iraqi sovereignty. He confirmed this when U.S. President George Bush visited Rome on June 4.

"His Holiness has always been deeply concerned for the suffering people of Iraq," the telegram said. "He has expressed this solidarity with them on many occasions, not least through the constant presence among them of his personal representative, the apostolic nuncio." The nuncio is Archbishop Fernando Filoni.

"Now, as you take up the office of president, the Catholic Church throughout the world offers you every support and encouragement in the task of building a new Iraq," the Pope told al-Yawer.

"Your noble country, once home to Abraham, is now home to a rich variety of faith traditions," he added.

This is why John Paul II "is confident that all the religious groups within the country will be able to make their voices heard and to play their rightful part in forging a new society, committed to true freedom of conscience, to justice for all, and to peaceful dialogue."

Similar messages were sent by Cardinal Sodano to Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, Vatican secretary for relations with states, to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.