Pope John Paul II urged Central American presidents to make advances toward peace and freedom during their ninth summit aimed at ending regional civil strife and revitalizing their economies.

"As Christmas approaches, perhaps the people of the region can be told through concrete deeds that peace and hope are coming," the pope said in a message read by Monsignor Pierre Giacomo de Nicolo on Sunday.The message was read at the end of a mass attended by presidents Rafael Angel Calderon of Costa Rica, Alfredo Cristiani of El Salvador, Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala, Rafael Leonardo Callejas of Honduras, Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua and Panama's Guillermo Endara - who is attending the summit as an observer.

The summit opened Saturday in the Pacific resort town of Puntarenas, about 70 miles west of San Jose. Topics on the summit agenda include ongoing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, the region's $20 billion foreign debt, Central America's economic integration into an economic bloc with Mexico, the United States and eventually Canada, and the environment.

"We feel optimistic, full of willingness and desire that Central America will meet objectives that allow it to develop stronger brotherly and economic ties," Callejas said.

The decade-old civil war between rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, and the Salvadoran military has claimed more than 72,000 lives, mostly civilians. About 100,000 people have died or disappeared in Guatemala during almost 30 years of civil strife.

"The people of the region have great courage and therefore should construct a more dignified tomorrow," Giacomo read from the pope's message.

The pope said each presidential summit must make a firm advance toward resolving problems in the area. He said he hoped Central American leaders would find ways to reduce hostilities in a region whose people, united by the same culture and faith, seek justice and liberty.