VATICAN CITY -- Pope John Paul II has appealed to world leaders to accept religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

"Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights," the pope said, "and for this reason, an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual."

His call for religious tolerance came in the 20th papal New Year's peace address "to the leaders of nations and the heads of international organizations."

The message, which Vatican diplomats will distribute around the world, will be formally delivered by the pope in his New Year's Day celebration of the church's World Day of Prayer and Peace.

In the message, the pope criticized totalitarian government but mentioned no specific country. He noted that religious freedom was restricted in many parts of the world.

"We have to admit that millions of people in various parts of the world are still suffering for their religious convictions," he said. "They are victims of repressive and oppressive legislation, victims sometimes of open persecution, but, more often, of subtle forms of discrimination aimed at believers and communities. This state of affairs, in itself intolerable, is also a bad omen for peace."

He said there are close links between peace and religious freedom, and he emphasized that all great world religions, "in their authentic inspiration," seek a common good and openness to others.

Expressing the church's solidarity with those who suffer for their faith, he condemned systems of government that "are discriminatory in nature and sometimes amount to open persecution."

"An effort should be made," he said, "to ensure that the opposition between the religious view of the world and the agnostic, or even atheistic view . . . should be kept within human limits of fairness and respect without doing harm to the fundamental rights of conscience of any man or woman living on this planet."

Although the communist system of government was not mentioned by name, the Vatican makes no secret of its distress at the repression of religion in Soviet bloc countries.

Only two Catholic bishops, both ill, survive in Czechoslovakia, where the government refuses to permit new bishops to be named. Two priests are in prison in Lithuania in the Soviet Union for their religious activities, and their names are sure to be on the agenda at a meeting between John Paul and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when the two meet early next year in Italy.