Image: Thai children light candles for the pope.
Chaiwat Subprasom  /  Reuters
Thai children light candles for Pope John Paul II during a Mass at the Assumption Church in Phuket province, about 536 miles south of Bangkok, on Saturday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/3/2005 8:27:15 PM ET 2005-04-04T00:27:15

World leaders mourned Pope John Paul on Saturday, many hailing him as a force for peace across the globe while others credited him with a major role in the fall of the Iron Curtain.

From Brazil to the Philippines, South Africa to Germany, Roman Catholics prayed, wept and hugged each other in grief when news flashed across the globe of the death of the Pope, who led the Church for 26 years — the third-longest pontificate.

“The Catholic Church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom and a good and faithful servant of God has been called home,” U.S. President George W. Bush said at the White House with his wife Laura beside him.

“We’re grateful to God for sending such a man ... a hero for the ages,” said Bush, who went to war in Iraq despite the Pope’s opposition but who as a Christian shared other views with him. He ordered U.S. flags to fly at half-mast as a mark of respect.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the pope was a man of peace. “He ... (was) extremely concerned about the world we lived in, and like me, he also felt that in war, all are losers.” said Annan.

Lech Walesa, who led Poland’s Solidarity movement which won power after a decade of struggle and hastened the collapse of the whole Soviet bloc, said Polish-born John Paul inspired the drive to end communism in Eastern Europe.

“(Without him) there would be no end of communism or at least much later and the end would have been bloody,” Walesa said.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said the pope was “humanitarian number one on the planet”. Russian President Vladimir Putin said John Paul’s “spiritual and political legacy have been deservedly valued by humanity”.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose country was once divided by the Iron Curtain, said: “By his efforts and through his impressive personality, (the Pope) changed our world.”

Mourning in the pope's homeland
In the pope’s homeland, Poles wept and prayed in silence after his death, church bells tolled across the country and sirens wailed in the capital Warsaw.

“This is a terrible shock, I don’t know what to say. He meant everything to us,” said Maria Drapa, one of thousands who held a vigil in the Pope’s home town of Wadowice.

In Madrid, several thousand people, mostly young, gathered in a square, holding candles, singing hymns and playing tambourines in front of pictures of the pope. In Cologne, a heavily Catholic German city, hundreds packed its cathedral.

After a Mass in Washington at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Lisa Jenkins of Orlando., Fla. offered her hopes for the future: “It’s a sad day. I’m praying for the world to open its eyes for what he stood for — peace, morality and more.”

"Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years," said Evangelist Billy Graham. "His extraordinary gifts, his strong Catholic faith, and his experience of human tyranny and suffering in his native Poland all shaped him, and yet he was respected by men and women from every conceivable background across the world."

Church bells rang out for the pope in communist Cuba as authorities allowed Catholics to mourn a man they praised for standing up to neo-liberal capitalism. Cubans filled churches for services for the only pontiff to set foot on the island.

Middle East remembers pope's pilgrimage of peace
Israelis and Palestinians alike paid respects to the pope, whose millennium pilgrimage of peace to the Holy Land stood in stark contrast to violence that has raged in the years since.

Bells tolled at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, after news of his death.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described John Paul as “a great religious figure who devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom, justice and equality for all races and religions, as well as our people’s right to independence”.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said: “No pope did more for the Jews.”

On his Holy Land visit in March 2000, the Pope prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews after 2,000 years of Christian-Jewish hostility.

“There is a shattering difference between the Catholic church of 20 to 50 years ago to today,” said Bobby Brown, the World Jewish Congress’s Israel-based international director.

Muslims hope for continuity of approach
For some, the pope's efforts helped avert a "clash of civilizations" that many feared would erupt after the September 11, 2001, attacks by Muslim militants on the United States.

Islamic clerics, theologians and many ordinary Muslims say his travels to more than 20 Islamic countries, his efforts to promote dialogue, his calls for peace in the Holy Land and his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq endeared him to many Muslims.

Now, Muslims will be watching closely to see if the next pope continues the interfaith dialogue that John Paul  spearheaded.

"Hopefully his successors will continue his policy of creating an understanding and furthering cooperation with Muslims," said Zaki Badawi, principal of London's Muslim College, adding his achievements would be hard to match.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said the Islamic Republic had learned with “extreme sadness” of John Paul’s death, saying he commanded “the three paths of religious learning, philosophical thought and poetical and artistic creativity”.

'You see him, you feel him'
In Latin America, home to more than half the world's Roman Catholics, the faithful remembered John Paul as a figure who fought for social justice and brought hope to the poor even as they mourned his death on Saturday.

Hundreds gathered at Mexico City's Basilica of Guadalupe, the country's spiritual heart, many in tears. Under a statue of the pope, they chanted "You see him, you feel him: the pope is present!"

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, the world's largest Roman Catholic country, said in a statement: "The pope performed rich and multifaceted work, reinforcing the hope of a world of justice and liberty."

Lula said the pope had waged a tireless struggle for human dignity, sought dialogue between different cultures and religions. Brazil declared seven days of mourning.

The pope traveled often to Latin America in his 26 years as head of the Catholic Church and he was popular, but sometimes controversial. In the political sphere, he silenced radical priests who sided with the poor in struggles against repressive governments in the 1980s. His rigid policies against contraception was also opposed by some in a region where the many poor people struggle to feed large families.

Voices of discontent
The pope’s staunch defense of Church orthodoxy upset others.

“Historians will judge the pope harshly. His opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV has condemned millions of people to die an agonizing, needless death,” said Peter Tatchell, a British gay and human rights activist.

Jerzy Urban, a spokesman of Poland’s past communist rulers, said: “I cannot say I will regret his passing. As a godless atheist I never cared much for the Church or the papacy.”

And Pope John Paul II was indirectly tainted by the pedophilia scandal. Even if most observers don't blame him, since many of the instances of abuse occurred before his papacy, his bishops failed to protect children and shuttled known pedophile priests from parish to parish.

“The bishops are the ones who believed the accused over the accuser, who played legal hardball, who hid behind PR staff,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Clergy abuse victims have said the pope’s centralization of the church may have allowed the problem of pedophile priests to fester, while others said it drove more U.S. Catholics away from the institution.

FutureChurch, a group interested in opening ordination to all baptized persons, said his “authoritarian” style of governance served him well in helping the Polish church survive communism, but limited worldwide Catholicism’s ability to creatively meet the challenges of the 21st Century.

Bill D’Antonio, who teaches sociology at Catholic University, said U.S. Catholics’ attendance at weekly Mass dropped off as people became “disgusted with the church’s leadership and moral authority.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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