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Pope prays for peace

By staff and wires

ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- Pope John Paul II has chosen the region now facing potential war to make a special prayer for Christians and Muslims to live together without violence.

"With all my heart, I beg God to keep the world in peace," the 81-year-old pontiff said, making plain his hope that the world resist a slide into turmoil as a result of terrorist attacks on the United States.

"We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict," he told a crowd estimated to number 50,000 in Astana's central Mother of Homeland Square for a Mass.

Kazakhstan, a point where Europe meets Asia and Islam meets Christianity, is a neighbor of Afghanistan, where suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden is believed to be in hiding.

As the United States continued to prepare an attack force, the pope prayed: Asia
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"From this city, Kazakhstan, our country is an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs, I wish to make an earnest call to everyone, Christians and the followers of other religions, that we work together to build a world without violence, a world that loves life, and grows justice and solidarity.

"We must not let what happened lead to our deepening of divisions. Religion must never be used as a reason for conflict.

"From this place, I invite both Christian and Muslims to raise an intense prayer to the one almighty God whose children we all are, that the supreme good of peace may reign in the world.

"May people everywhere, strengthen by divine wisdom, work for a civilization of love, in which there is no room for hatred, discrimination or violence.

"With all my heart I beg God to keep the world in peace -- Amen."

Prevent 'Islamophobia'

Earlier the pope won praise from the leader of Kazakhstan for "protecting the world from Islamophobia."

President Nursultan Nazarbayev thanked the pope for going ahead with the visit despite the "troubled situation in the world" and for stressing that religion should not be blamed for the attacks.

Authorities in the former Soviet republics that lie between Russia and Afghanistan have expressed concerns about militant Islam.

Nazarbayev predicted last year that Afghanistan's hard-line Taliban rulers and bin Laden would target Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region in the coming years.

On Saturday, he thanked the pope for making the trip and added: "The tragedy that happened in the United States presents a threat of division and confrontation between civilizations and religions."

Vatican denies assurance

The Vatican has denied reports that it had asked for or received assurances from Washington that U.S. forces would hold off in an attack during John Paul's six-day stay in Kazakhstan and Armenia.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters aboard the plane that the Vatican had taken no special security precautions for the trip and that there had been "no direct or indirect" threats against the pope.

"I greet the Islamic leaders and faithful, who boast a long religious tradition in this region," the pope said. Kazakstan's top Islamic leader, the grand mufti, was among the dignitaries.

Roman Catholics make up just 2 to 3 percent of the population of 15 million in Kazakhstan, where the majority religions are Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity.

Soviet repression

Kazakhstan has not ruled out any form of cooperation with the United States in the war against terrorism, the foreign minister said Saturday in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We are not for the forceful means of settling any conflict," Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov said.

"But terrorism is a new threat, it's a specific threat, therefore we believe that any possible form of action can be taken and should be taken in order to eliminate the threat."

Idrisov's comments reflected what appeared to be a growing gap between Central Asian nation's readiness to provide assistance to the U.S.-led anti-terrorism effort and Russia's qualms about launching any such operations from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

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