FOR millions of people across the world, it is a symbol of their faith, while for the rich and famous it has become the new black. But fashion-conscious crucifix-wearers were yesterday accused of contradicting the spirit of the Gospel after the Pope criticised celebrities who wear them as mere accessories.

In a statement by Fides, the Vatican's press service, yesterday, the Pope described the wearing of crosses by stars like Madonna, Catherine Zeta Jones, Liz Hurley and David Beckham, as an endorsement of ''the mania of the moment''.

Referring to those sported by stars, which are often covered in gems and crafted from precious metals, the statement said: ''Is it consistent with the Gospel to spend millions on a copy of the sacred symbol of the Christian faith, and perhaps forget that there are people all over the world who suffer and die of hunger?''

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Singling out Jennifer Aniston, Naomi Campbell and Mrs Douglas, nee Zeta Jones, the statement added: ''This mania is incomprehensible.''

It is not the first time that stars have been attacked by the Catholic Church for employing Christian symbolism as fashion accessories, and Madonna has incurred the Vatican's wrath on numerous occasions.

Since the 1980s, she has consistently used Christian imagery in her work and in a sensational video for her single, Like A Prayer, Jesus Christ was depicted as being coloured as she danced beside burning crosses.

Over the past few decades, rock stars from Black Sabbath and Judas Priest to Marilyn Manson have also been accused by the church of blasphemous acts.

However, there is genuine concern that using a cross as a fashion accessory is demeaning religion at a time when attendances at churches are at an all-time low.

Peter Kearney, of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, agreed with the sentiments expressed yesterday by the Vatican, and said: ''Obviously the symbol of the cross and the crucifix are not the same - and they are not interchangeable.

''The symbolism behind this has special meaning and is very important to many people and when this is demeaned in any way, or reduced, I think it is fair to say more people should be made aware of this.''

Jim Cowie, of the Church of Scotland's board of social responsibility, said he could understand why some Catholics might be upset: ''It is not something our Church has particularly strong views about, but it certainly has become more popular and more people are wearing a crucifix as a fashion accessory.

''I suppose that for many Catholics, wearing and carrying a crucifix is very important to them so I can understand why some people might be offended.''

The Pope's comments came as he began a five-day trip to the Muslim nation of Azerbaijan, before heading to Bulgaria.

It also emerged yesterday that British actor Sir Anthony Hopkins is to play a Pope in his next film. The star, who won an Oscar in 1992 for his role as the flesh-eating Dr Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, will take on the papal role in the upcoming film Edgardo Mortara.

It is based on the true story of a young Jewish boy who was kidnapped by the Vatican in the mid-nineteenth century for being baptised by his nanny.

Hopkins plays Pope Pius IX who risked the criticism of the international community for refusing to give up the little boy.

The Pope's visit to Azerbaijan is the start of a trying travel period for John Paul, who turned 82 on Saturday and appears increasingly frail.

''It is what you see,'' said his spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, when asked about the Pope's health on the flight from Rome. His speech is slurred and his hands tremble - symptoms of Parkinson's disease - and he walks with difficulty because of knee and hip ailments.

The Pope's agenda in the former Soviet republic included calls for religious tolerance and an appeal that violence must never be carried out in the name of religion.

For the first time, the Pope used a mobile lift to board his Alitalia plane in Rome and to alight in Baku to spare him the stairs. At the Vatican, aides now wheel him around on a platform.