VATICAN, Mar 17, 03 (CWNews.com) -- In his Sunday Angelus audience on March 16, Pope John Paul II issued his most urgent call to date for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Iraq.

The Holy Father urged the government of Iraq to cooperate with international disarmament efforts. At the same time he appealed to leaders of other countries to recognize that "the use of force must represent the last recourse."

Pope John Paul made these remarks after having conferred at length with Cardinal Pio Laghi, who had acted as the Pope's personal emissary in a meeting with US President George W. Bush. The Pope had emerged on Saturday from his week-long Lenten retreat, and resumed his regular activities with a particular focus on the effort to ward off military activity.

The Pope's Sunday message was addressed not only to world leaders but to all Christians, calling for fervent prayers on behalf of peace. "The coming days will be decisive for the outcome of the Iraqi crisis," he said. "Let us pray, therefore, that the Lord will inspire all parties involved." He also asked Catholics to redouble their Lenten penance and strive more diligently for interior conversion, saying, "Without conversion of the heart there is no peace."

In a break from his prepared text, the Pope reminded his listeners that he had personal experience with the horrors of war. He insisted that believers must unite in rejecting war as an option, saying "Never again war!"

However, the Pontiff also acknowledged the need for Iraqi compliance with international disarmament demands. In a "pressing appeal" addressed to Baghdad, he reminded the Iraqi government leadership of its "urgent duty fully to cooperate with the international community, to eliminate every motive for armed intervention."

The Pope continued to insist that diplomatic efforts could bear fruit. "There is still time to negotiate," he said. "There is still room for peace."

Cardinal Laghi, in an interview published by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, had summarized the concerns of the Holy See by pointing to four negative consequences of military action: "the suffering people will face, the future for the Middle East, the dialogue with Islam, and the consequences for the United Nations."

The suffering of civilians would be the saddest consequence of war, the cardinal said. But he also predicted that military action would undermine the cause of peace in the volatile Middle East as a whole, and he questioned whether an attack led by the US would decrease the influence and authority of the UN.

However, Cardinal Laghi said that "the most delicate factor" involved in the crisis is the reaction of the Muslim world. Referring to this weekend's meeting among the leaders of the US, Britain, and Spain, the cardinal observed: "If the three countries that met in the Azores go to war, that will appear to the Islamic world as a war by Christian countries against a Muslim country. Tensions will be heightened, and that could lead to an increase in terrorism."