VATICAN CITY, JAN. 30, 2005 ( John Paul II sent words of greeting to leprosy sufferers worldwide, and encouraged international commitment to end Hansen's disease once and for all.

The Pope made his appeal after praying the Angelus with the crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square today, which was also World Day of Leprosy Sufferers.

"In the poorest areas of the world, this sickness, though curable, continues to strike millions of people, among whom are many children," noted the Holy Father.

A letter from the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, written for this day, states that leprosy, or Hansen's disease, "is still present and is tragically lethal in at least nine countries."

John Paul II in his address said: "To all these brothers and sisters I address special greetings, assuring them of my prayer, which I extend to all those who, in various ways, assist them."

"I hope that the international community's commitment will succeed in eliminating completely this social plague," he added.

The Pope greeted members of the Italian association Friends of Raoul Follereau, who were on hand.

The life of Raoul Follereau (1903-1977), French writer and journalist, was transformed when he came upon a village of lepers in Ivory Coast.

Follereau spent the rest of his life working to end the disease. In 1954 he instituted the World Day of Leprosy Sufferers.