VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Pope John Paul II says the Roman Catholic Church in Rwanda cannot be held responsible for misdeeds by individual members during the bloodbath two years ago.

In a letter released by the Vatican on Wednesday, the pope reflected on the two years since a power struggle between Tutsi and Hutu rivals escalated into massacres that killed about 500,000 people. About 60 percent of Rwanda's population are Roman Catholic.

The London-based human rights group African Rights and other groups have contended that some priests actively encouraged the murderers, and that the Catholic hierarchy took no action to stop the slaughter.

``The church in itself cannot be held responsible for the misdeeds of its members who have acted against evangelical law,'' John Paul wrote in the letter addressed to Rwandan church leaders, civil authorities and the rest of the population.

His defense of the church apparently was the first time the pope has publicly addressed the allegations against the priests.

In the letter, John Paul said that ``All the members of the church who have sinned during the genocide must have the courage to bear the consequences of the deeds that they have committed against God and against their future.''

He singled out no groups or individuals.

The pope urged the church in Rwanda to set an example for reconciliation.

At the outbreak of bloodshed, Rwanda was 80 percent Hutu. About half the clergy were Tutsi, mostly because the church was one of the few institutions left open to them.

The letter was taken to Rwanda on Tuesday by a papal envoy, Bishop Paul Josef Cordes, who told Vatican Radio that he would try to overcome government resistance to humanitarian aid by international Catholic organizations.