LOS ANGELES, SEPT. 5 -- The president of the nation's third largest Protestant denomination denied today that he had been critical of the decision to send U.S. troops to the Middle East, while other religious leaders stepped gingerly around new issues of war and peace.

The Rev. T.J. Jemison, who heads the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc., acknowledged today that he had said "we're jeopardizing our fine young men and women over oil in the Persian Gulf." But he emphasized that he thinks President Bush had no choice but to send troops.

Oil is vital "to our way of life," and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was "immoral," Jemison said in an interview after the opening of the 110th annual meeting here of his 7.8-million-member denomination, which calls itself the largest black organization in the country. "I deplore the actions that forced our troops to go, but the president has done everything that can be done," he said.

Jemison echoed the cautious statements of several other American religious leaders who have refrained from criticizing Bush but have asked that negotiations be given priority over military action.

In a joint letter dated Aug. 30, leaders of the 1.6-million-member United Church of Christ (UCC) and the 1.1-million-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said, "At this critical time, we believe that restraint by the U.S. and other nations, in responding to the Iraqi aggression in Kuwait, is essential."

The Rev. Paul H. Sherry, president of the UCC, and the Rev. John O. Humbert, president and general minister of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said, "We believe that the U.S. and other nations should look increasingly to the United Nations for an appropriate response" and "are concerned that the continuing buildup of an already massive military presence . . . will hamper these efforts and exacerbate tensions."

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which serves 53 million U.S. Roman Catholics, has confined his remarks to a plea for a peaceful solution so all military personnel in the Persian Gulf region "may soon be restored to their families."

Edmond L. Browning, presiding bishop of Bush's own 2.5-million-member Episcopalian Church, said he hopes national pride will not impede negotiations.

The executive committee of the National Council of Churches, the nation's largest religious umbrella organization, plans to discuss the Persian Gulf crisis at its regular meeting next Wednesday. Dale Bishop, director of the council's Middle East office, said he is focusing his efforts on moving relief supplies to refugees suffering on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.

An official close to internal discussions in several large Protestant denominations said officials have been struggling to balance their distaste for the aggressive acts of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with their strong opposition to any U.S. military action that risks lives for economic gain.

Some already have expressed private concern about the size of the U.S. force gathering in Saudi Arabia and the relatively small commitment from other nations opposed to Iraq, while acknowledging that many parishioners support Bush's actions.

The UCC's Office for Church in Society, the denomination's social-action arm, released a statement Aug. 16 that said "further buildup of an already massive U.S. military presence . . . should be halted" and called on the United States to "take seriously the long-term struggles and aspirations of Arab peoples." The American Friends Service Committee also called for an end to the U.S. buildup Tuesday.

The strongest support for Bush appears to have come from Jewish leaders. Representatives of 11 Jewish organizations released a statement after meeting with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney Aug. 24 that said, "History has taught us that there can be no appeasement of an aggressor."