Mourning the pope
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Posted April 4, 2005 at 10:10 a.m.

World religious and political leaders
weigh in on legacy of John Paul II

By Stacy Meichtry
Vatican City

As images of the lifeless body of Pope John Paul II were broadcast to the world, heads of state and religious leaders offered their interpretations of his 26-year pontificate.

John Paul lay in state under the frescoed ceiling of the Vatican's Sala Clementina, robed in red and white vestments and crowned with a white miter.

Flanked by Swiss Guards and positioned beside a crucifix, the pontiff's head rested peacefully on a stack of velvet pillows. The crosier, his bishop's staff, was tucked under his arm.

Moments before in St. Peter's Square, millions of mourners gathered to celebrate a requiem Mass for the globe-trotting pontiff, responsible for bringing the papacy to the doorstep of leaders ranging from Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan to Queen Elizabeth and Fidel Castro.

"He was a tireless advocate of peace, a true pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a strong force for critical self-evaluation by the church itself," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said.

Speaking from the White House, President Bush said the church had "lost its shepherd." Bush said, "He gave us values. He gave us courage to act more effective in the world arena. The world will be different without John Paul II."

Leaders in the Middle East joined in praising the pontiff for his diplomatic efforts to free the region from decades of conflict.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described John Paul as a "distinguished religious figure" who "defended the rights of Palestinians, their freedom and independence."

"Pope John Paul II was a man of peace, a friend of the Jewish nation, recognized the uniqueness of the Jewish nation and worked for the historic reconciliation between the nations and for the renewal of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican at the end of 1993," said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described "warm recollections of meetings with the pope. He was wise, responsive, and open for dialogue."

Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox church, offered a cautious endorsement of John Paul's pontificate, offering his grievances while expressing hope for change. "The upcoming new period in the life of the Roman Catholic church will hopefully help renew the relations of mutual respect and fraternal Christian love between our Churches," Alexy said.

Alexy II has accused Roman Catholic churches in Russia of proselytizing the Russian Orthodox faithful - an accusation that ultimately blocked John Paul from fulfilling a life-long wish to visit the country.

In John Paul's native Poland, President Alexander Kwasniewski hailed the pontiff as a "great example of Christian dedication to people of all Christian denominations and indeed of all faiths."

"He will also be remembered as a person who helped lead the fight for freedom, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall," he said.

Other Europeans leaders struck a more secular tone in describing the pope who waged and lost a hard fought campaign to have a reference to the European Union's Christian roots made in the nation bloc's constitution.

French President Jacques Chirac characterized the pontiff as an "enlightened and inspired priest."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair stressed John Paul's political activism. "Throughout a hard and often difficult life, he stood for social justice and on the side of the oppressed, whether as a young man facing the Nazi occupation in Poland or later in challenging the communist regime," he said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called John Paul "a leader of manifest holiness and a faithful and prayerful friend of the Anglican Church."

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is reporting and writing for NCR during this period of papal transition.

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