To prevent war in the Middle East "will take a miracle," church leaders say. But the region of Jewish, Christian and Muslim origins "is the cradle of miracles," they add. A new "miracle must be acted and prayed into being."

This urgent plea for peace has grown strong among mainline churches as the Jan. 15 deadline approaches for United Nations-approved use of force to oust Iraq from invasion-seized Kuwait.In some religious circles, there is a modified counterpoint to this rising church crescendo against military resistance to the aggression. But major church leaders raise the outcry.

Push negotiations, they plead, and they've summoned members and congregations across the country to fasting, prayer and every feasible means of public action to "find a way out of certain catastrophe."

"We are marching toward war," said 18 church leaders in late December, including heads of most larger denominations, but "war would be a disaster for us all."

On the other hand, more conservative, evangelical churches and some Jewish organizations show a less fixed attitude about the options, leaving room for the possible need of force.

Robert P. Dugan Jr. of Washington, public affairs director of the National Association of Evangelicals, said it has not acted formally on the matter, but "in my opinion, evangelicals by and large support the president's policy."

"We're hopeful that the conflict can be resolved without bloodshed," Dugan said. "But I don't think you'll find evangelicals necessarily totally opposed to military action per se.

"We're still hoping for some solution other than war, and we applaud the president for trying every other way before firing a shot."

The position resembled that of the the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which says that if other reasonable means fail to dislodge the aggressor, the "use of military force is an acceptable moral option."

However, mainline Christian denominations, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, have mounted broad opposition to any resort to arms. Catholic bishops said it could violate classical criteria of a "just war."

While they all have condemned Iraq's aggression and praised Bush's enlistment of U.N. support and international economic sanctions against the onslaught, they decry using force.

"War will not liberate Kuwait, it will destroy it," the 18 church leaders said after a December trip to the Middle East, including Iraq. "War will not save us from weapons of mass destruction, it will unleash them.

"War will not establish regional stability, it will inflame the entire Middle East. War will not resolve longstanding conflicts, it will explode them wider and deeper."

Avoiding war is not "only a question of right and wrong," they said. "It is also a matter of life and death. The unspeakable loss of lives, especially innocent civilians, would be unacceptable on moral grounds."

Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, who met afterward with fellow Episcopalian Bush to give him the church leaders' conclusions, said he hoped prayer and public pressure may sway him against war.

"I really had a sense there is still a struggle within him," Browning added. "He was trying too hard to find something to justify war."