In churches, temples and mosques across the country this holiday season, groups are gathering to pray and fast, to study the lessons of peacemaking from their religious traditions and to send the administration in Washington a clear message of moral reason: War is not the answer.

Former president Jimmy Carter, who received the Nobel Peace Prize this month for his tireless peacemaking efforts, already has joined a wide array of Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders in speaking out against a U.S.-led war against Iraq. These voices are not alone. Thousands of people across the country -- many who have never participated in antiwar demonstrations before -- continue to protest publicly against the administration's policy on Iraq, while in Europe and the Middle East important government allies call for patience and solid support for the U.N. weapons inspections.

Whether the administration will heed these cautions is unknown, but Iraq's report to the United Nations and the subsequent U.S. response will be a turning point in the crisis. At this critical juncture, religious communities are joining together to call on members of Congress and President Bush to listen to these urgent voices of dissent.

Our plea is not for inaction but rather for the effective use of international diplomatic pressure to address the dangers posed by Iraq's weapons programs. With the return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq, a new opportunity has been created for the peaceful disarmament of Iraq.

We have been encouraged that, in spite of its belligerent posturing, the United States has given its backing to a multilateral, diplomatic approach -- support that has been vital in moving the issue this far toward a nonmilitary resolution.

We in the religious community are asking the administration why it has done little else to help ensure that the weapons inspections succeed. We are concerned that the administration's continued bellicose threats of war, the visible U.S. military buildup around Iraq and the intensified bombings in the northern and southern "no-fly" zones have worked against successful weapons inspections.

Some believe that President Bush has already made up his mind to go to war, despite the new momentum behind inspections. If this is true, the administration will be interpreting the United Nations' position much more narrowly than are other members of the U.N. Security Council, who believe another resolution would be required to authorize war after consideration of any noncompliance by Iraq. Some nations are accusing the United States of undermining the inspections and creating a pretext for war.

Still, war against Iraq is not inevitable. As Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently stated, "Until we've exhausted every peaceful means, one cannot say the use of force is inevitable."

People of faith are remembering and acting upon the call to seek peace and pursue it. We hope and pray President Bush will join us.

The writer is general secretary of the National Council of Churches.