Pope John Paul II has cancelled his weekly general audience because of a knee problem. The cancellation has again raised concern about the 81-year-pope's health just weeks before Easter.

The Vatican's chief spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said an arthritic knee was forcing the pope to cancel his Wednesday general audience this week and Sunday parish visits for the next couple of weeks.

Mr. Navarro Valls said "the Holy Father's doctor, with the consultation of his collaborators and in consideration of the persistent pain in his right knee," has "advised the pope to rest, in order to better cure the ailment."

The papal spokesman said the pope's speech for Wednesday's audience will be read in the Paul VI Hall in the Vatican by someone else. However, pilgrims will be able to see the pope who will appear briefly at the window of his apartment to bless the crowd.

The pope had already cancelled parish visits for the past two Sundays because of his bad knee. He has had trouble walking since 1994 when he slipped in his bath and broke his right femur. He underwent surgery at the time but has since walked with difficulty.

The cancellations of the pope's general audience and parish visits have once again raised fears about his health. Pope John Paul turns 82 in May. In what appeared an effort to do away with such concerns, the Vatican said the pope's private audiences would go ahead as planned.

Pope John Paul is facing a busy schedule ahead as Holy Week and Easter approaches. He also has a number of foreign trips planned for later this year, including attending World Youth Day celebrations in Canada this summer.