NEW YORK, DEC. 21 -- "War is not the answer" in the Persian Gulf, leading representatives of more than a dozen religious denominations said today on their return from a fact-finding mission to Iraq and four other Middle Eastern nations.

Adding their voices to others cautioning against military action in the gulf region, the 18 religious leaders said the United States would be hypocritical to react with military force to Iraq's occupation of Kuwait while tolerating Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The group included representatives of the Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Greek Orthodox faiths.

At a news conference, the church leaders called for the United Nations to convene an international peace conference to discuss "interrelated issues" in the Middle East, lending support to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's insistence on linking negotiations to the various regional conflicts. But the leaders avoided the word "linkage," or as one put it, the "L-word."

"The key word for us is consistency," said the Rev. Mac Charles Jones of the National Baptist Convention of America. "If you're going to take the high moral ground in Kuwait, where is that same ground as it relates to occupation in other places?"

The people of the Middle East, he said, "are calling on our government to act with integrity rather than hypocrisy."

The week-long "peace pilgrimage" was coordinated by the National Council of the Churches (NCC), whose 32 member denominations represent 42 million Americans. Delegates gathered in Cyprus, then traveled in three groups to Israel, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, where they met with religious and political leaders, refugee-camp dwellers and villagers.

The leaders said they would take their anti-war message to their church members and encourage them to lobby Congress and President Bush.

On Thursday, the Most Rev. Edmond L. Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, shared the group's conclusions with Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III in a 40-minute White House meeting.

"In no way is the war option going to serve our national interest, because I believe the wrath of the Arab nations following such a catastrophe will be with us for years and years and years to come," Browning said he told Bush. "The Middle East will be scorched beyond belief, and the recovery of such destruction would be almost impossible."

On Bush's desk, Browning said, was a copy of the latest Amnesty International report on Kuwait, documenting several hundred deaths and thousands of instances of torture by Iraqi troops.

Bush, he said, "immediately began to question . . . whether . . . not responding in a very strong fashion to the Kuwait invasion would be morally responsible. I said to him, 'Mr. President . . . I'm sure that much of what is in this document is factual, but . . . two wrongs don't make a right, that responding in like violence is not going to serve anybody's needs.'

"My feeling after our discussion is that he was seriously struggling with this whole matter and will continue to do so," Browning said, adding that Bush, an Episcopalian, said he "hates to have his bishop in opposition."

Many of the leaders said that they had been against war in the gulf area before their trip and that their beliefs were reinforced by what they saw and heard there. They did not advocate withdrawal of U.S. troops but said the troop presence would not pressure the Iraqis to negotiate.

"The threat of war is not going to solve anything," said Bishop Melvin Talbert of the California-Nevada annual conference of the United Methodist Church and vice president of the NCC. "What we need to do is move beyond threat to dealing with some of the issues that the people have consistently laid before us."

In addition to Browning, the group included these leaders of religious denominations: the Rev. Dr. Fred Lofton of the Progressive National Baptist Convention; the Rev. Edwin G. Mulder, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America; the Rev. Herbert W. Chilstrom, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Rev. Dr. Donald E. Miller, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren; the Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith, representing the general secretary of the National Baptist Convention, USA; the Rev. Dr. James Andrews, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and Dr. Paul Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ.