VATICAN CITY, FEB. 18 -- Pope John Paul II has called for a "just peace" in the Persian Gulf and has rejected "peace at any cost."

The comments, made during a visit Sunday to the church of Santa Dorotea in Rome, were widely interpreted as a response to criticism that the pontiff has identified himself too closely with the pacifist cause.

The pope has made frequent pleas for peace since the gulf war began Jan 17. Until now, he has emphasized that armed conflict can never solve the gulf crisis. In his more than 40 public statements on the issue since fighting started, the pontiff consistently has called for a cease-fire.

Sunday, the pope reiterated his hope for a peaceful solution, but added: "{We want} a just peace, certainly, but we are not pacifists. We do not want peace at any cost. A just peace. Peace and justice. Peace is always the work of justice."

The Vatican denied that the comments marked a change in the Holy See's position on the gulf war, but said it reflected a wish to answer critics who had accused the pontiff of pacifism.

In his speech, the pope gave no indication of how he believed a just peace could be attained. On other occasions, however, the pope has called on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to withdraw forces from Kuwait, and at the same time appealed for an international conference to solve the Palestinian question.

In Italy, which has sent 10 fighter aircraft and five ships to the gulf, the pope's noninterventionist stand has provoked controversy. Critics from several of the government coalition's five member parties have variously accused the pontiff of mixing religion with politics, of siding with Italy's Communists and of being pro-Arab.

The outbreak of the gulf war has raised moral questions for many church leaders. In Italy, France and the United States, prominent Roman Catholic officials have spoken out against pacifism and in some cases have defended the morality of military intervention, maintaining there is such a thing as a "just" war.

The pope also has faced growing criticism from Jews around the world and in Italy, where 30,000 Jews live, for his refusal to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Holy See recognizes the Jewish state, but has stopped short of establishing full diplomatic relations, citing three main obstacles -- the uncertainty of Israel's borders, the status of Jerusalem and the issue of the occupied territories.

There has been growing sympathy in Italy for the Israeli people, who have come under attack from Iraqi missiles, as well as admiration for Israeli restraint in postponing retaliation against Iraq. These sentiments have brought support for Israel from traditionally pro-Palestinian quarters, including the Socialists and the Democratic Party of the Left, which is the new name for Italy's Communists. As a result, a group of 50 Parliament members has asked the Italian government to persuade the Vatican to open full diplomatic relations with Israel.

A survey of Roman Catholic priests, commissioned by the Italian news magazine "Panorama," found today that more than half were in favor of the Vatican opening full relations with Israel -- 21.2 percent immediately and 29.8 percent after the war. But the Vatican repeatedly has indicated in recent weeks that it has no plans to change its position.