By CNS | Published April 7, 2005
From the former president of Poland who said Pope John Paul II’s death was “as if Poland lost its mother,” to Cuba’s President Fidel Castro, who declared three days of mourning in the communist country, the world’s political leaders voiced appreciation for the late pope.
“He looked after Poland as a mother looks after her family,” said Lech Walesa, who led Poland’s Solidarity movement, which helped bring about the downfall of communist rule. Walesa, who was a friend of the pope, the former archbishop of Krakow, became Poland’s first democratically elected president in 1990.
“When a mother passes away, the family often breaks down—may this not happen this time,” Walesa told reporters.
In Cuba, Castro published a letter to the Vatican on the front page of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde April 3, saying the pope’s death was “sad news” and offering “the most heartfelt condolences of the Cuban people and the government.”
Cuba has been an officially atheistic country since Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution, but thawing relations with the church led to an official visit by the pope in January 1998.
Castro ordered three days of mourning, to include flying flags at half-staff, and suspension of events, including anniversary celebrations for communist organizations and baseball games. He also had a book of condolences opened for the public to sign.
In China, where there has been no such warming of relations with that nation’s communist government, Liu Jianchao, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, issued a statement expressing his country’s condolences. China prohibits religious activity by any group not specifically permitted by the government and does not recognize the Vatican’s authority over Catholics in that country.
Liu’s statement said in part, “We hope the Vatican, under the new pope, will create conditions conducive to the improvement of relations with China.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that apart from the pope’s role as a spiritual guide “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.”
Leaders of heavily Catholic countries joined in expressing the grief of their people.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the pope’s death “represents the loss of one of the most towering world figures in recent history.”
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said the people of her country “received the news of his death with a deep sense of grief and loss. He was a holy champion of the Filipino family and of profound Christian values that make every one of us contemplate what is just, moral and sacred in life.”
Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said Italians are “mourning the loss of a father” who will be remembered as a man of freedom and justice.
Irish President Mary McAleese said Pope John Paul’s story “is that of a man of immense faith and conviction and, in latter years, great personal courage. He engaged with human culture and civilization in every aspect and in every corner of the world.”
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the pope would be remembered for his travels and because he preached world peace, citing the pontiff’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Even in countries with very few Catholics, the pope was recalled fondly.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said “Israel, the Jewish people and the entire world lost today a great champion of reconciliation and brotherhood between the faiths.”
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said the world has lost “a very important religious figure who dedicated his life to peace and justice for all.”
Walesa was joined by current and former leaders of former Soviet countries in crediting the pope’s role in peacefully changing the Soviet regime.
Croatian President Stjepan Mesic said Pope John Paul’s role as a champion of improved relations among all peoples, countries, civilizations and religions brought him the respect of millions throughout the world.
“His place in history has long been ensured. Now he has taken his place in eternity,” he said.
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called the pope “the No. 1 humanist on the planet.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany thanked the pope for helping lift the yoke of communism from Europe.
In England, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the world has lost a leader who was revered by people of all faiths and none.
“He never wavered, never flinched, in the struggle for what he thought was right and good,” Blair said.
Blair had been expected to ask the queen to dissolve Parliament April 4 so he could call national elections in May, but he canceled his meeting so he could attend a vespers service in honor of the pope in London’s Catholic Westminster Cathedral.