Church leaders from 34 countries backed the initiative at a weekend meeting in Vilnius, said Juozas Ruzgys, spokesman for the host the Lithuanian Bishops' Conference, on Sunday.

"The bishops seek to revive the ages old tradition of pilgrim journeys to the Holy Land, which has been forgotten amid all the conflicts," said Ruzgys, speaking on behalf of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences.

"Every Christian who goes can help to stop the chain of victims and hatred in the Middle East by spreading a culture of dialogue and tolerance. Political and diplomatic means are not enough," he added.
 
Pope John Paul has said peace in the Holy Land is a particular theme for prayer in 2003. He has often appealed to end violence in the region.

Risks 

Ruzgys said the Church was concerned for Christians living in the Middle East who were cut off from the rest of the Christian community.
 
"The Christian's vocation is to witness to Christ in all environments, even if there is danger," Ruzgys said, adding that travellers should take prudent safety measures.

"We don't want to encourage martyrdom," he said. "But people risk violence when they go to a football match. Is the cause of peace worth less?"

Ruzgys has said the Council of European Bishops' Conferences is due to publish the statement on its website on Monday.