VATICAN CITY – Pope John Paul II and top Vatican officials are unleashing a barrage of condemnations of a possible U.S. military strike on Iraq, calling it immoral, risky and a "crime against peace."
The unwavering stance has made the pope one of the most visible opponents of war in current circumstances, and a rallying point for peace groups and politicians who seize on his words counseling against war.
Even those supportive of a U.S.-led strike, including the prime ministers of Britain, Spain and Italy, have recently lined up to see him, aware of his leadership role.
President Bush, who has rarely met with opponents of his Iraqi stand in recent months, did receive an emissary from John Paul last week. Upon returning to Rome, the emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, said American officials had been friendly but that "friendship is not enough."
The next day, as he began a week of Lenten prayers, the pope said he will "bear in mind the needs of the Church and the concerns of all mankind, above all for peace in Iraq and the Holy Land."
The stance reflects what experts say is the Vatican's evolving position on just war, already seen by its opposition to the Gulf War, as well as concern about the impact of war on relations between Christians and Muslims.
"He is looking ahead for the rest of this century where Christian-Muslim relations are key to peace and religious freedom in Africa and many parts of Asia," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America.
John Paul has insisted that war is a "defeat for humanity" and that a preventive strike against Iraq is neither legally nor morally justified.
Aides have repeatedly said the pope is not a pacifist, pointing to his support of humanitarian intervention to "disarm the aggressor" in Bosnia and East Timor and his repeat condemnations of terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks.
But in some of the Vatican's strongest language against a possible war, its foreign minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran said a unilateral military strike would be a "crime against peace" with no justification on grounds of self-defense.
Vatican officials have also spoken of what they consider are the political realities of an American attack on an Arab country.
"We want to say to America: Is it worth it to you? Won't you have have, afterward, decades of hostility in the Islamic world," asked the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
The Vatican has been the center of diplomacy.
John Paul sent an envoy to meet with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein last month and received Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.
Bush, a Methodist, has sought to court Catholic voters, who made up a quarter of the electorate in 2000.
Although no top U.S. official has traveled to Rome to discuss Iraq with the Vatican, prominent conservative American Catholic, Michael Novak, came to help make the case that war is justified.
"Humans of good will disagree," Novak said after his meetings.
Novak, in Rome under the State Department's public speakers program, did take issue with criticism of U.S. policies from some Vatican sources, including a Jesuit magazine close to the Vatican that suggested that the U.S. was acting out of economic and political motives, not an attempt to disarm Saddam.
The Vatican has long been stung by the accusation that Pope Pius XII, the World War II pope, failed to raise his voice to head off the Holocaust, an allegation the Vatican rejects.
Without drawing a direct parallel, Cardinal Roberto Tucci told Vatican Radio last week that the pope's efforts for peace have been recognized by the non-Christian world.
"No one can ever say that the pope didn't do enough," Tucci said.