WASHINGTON. — Washington.--Pope John Paul II gave an Easter message that was neither welcomed nor properly respected in most of the Christian world. He denounced the Persian Gulf war as a ''darkness menacing the earth'' and ''violation of international law'' that ''cast a shadow over the whole human community.''
Even Italian Catholic officials, who had delivered warplanes to the coalition assault on Iraq, could turn a deaf ear because they viewed themselves as agents of an exorcism that cast a demon named Saddam Hussein from the body of mankind.
Millions of American Catholics and other Christians never heard the pontiff's message, so busy were they in tying yellow ribbons and engrossing themselves in profiteering TV programs made under the cover of ''welcoming home our troops.''
We will probably celebrate another Easter before most Americans accept the wisdom of Pope John Paul's remarks, simply because most Americans don't count casualties or measure war tragedy the way this pontiff does. Americans can celebrate in flag-waving and ribbon-tying because they have a cruelly jingoistic view of the worst victims of the Gulf war.
''Our men and women'' used their ''smart'' bombs and laser-guided missiles with such skill that, except for a few hundred families that will grieve forever, our officials can feel the U.S. had no casualties. To them it was not ''darkness,'' but a free practice run of the newest weapons of death.
But Pope John Paul counts Iraqis as God's children, too, and laments the fact that 100,000, maybe 200,000, Iraqis died at the business end of the bombs and missiles that make some Americans so proud.
The pope counts as casualties the 698,000 Shiite Iraqis and other refugees who have fled into Iran, the thousands who died trying to get there and the tens of thousands in limbo because Iran says it can't feed and shelter any more.
The Vatican counts the thousands of Kurds who have fled to Turkey and the miles-long lines of Kurdish women, children and armed rebels who beg for food, water, sanctuary as they flee from a futile, U.S.-inspired effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
I am not a Catholic. But I have unbounded respect and admiration for a religious leader who dares stand above the political, racial and ''patriotic'' passions of a terrible time and say to the world that a war called ''just'' and ''moral'' was in truth a plunge into darkness. Every American, embracing any or even no religion, ought to read what Pope John Paul said very carefully.
This great religious leader worries that in the darkness, politicians in the United States, Israel, the Soviet Union and elsewhere will conclude that through military might they can continue to stifle ''the long-ignored aspirations of oppressed peoples, such as the Palestinians, the Lebanese, the Kurds'' and the Baltic republics, which have yet to satisfy a ''yearning for respect for their own identity and their own history.''
This pope refuses to celebrate a wretched war whose fallout is more dreadful than the yellow-ribbon merchants and flag manufacturers will ever try to understand. The pontiff asked us, in his way, to spend less on Easter Egg hunts and give more to keep alive the victims of famine in the Sudan and Ethiopia and to help end devastating civil wars in Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Somalia. He could have added Yugoslavia, Cambodia and a lot of other countries.
What is it -- pure intimidation by the White House and a spineless media -- that has prevented American religious leaders from speaking out as Pope John Paul II has done?
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.