Pope John Paul II's death will be mourned not just by the tens of millions of Roman Catholics around the world but also by other Christian denominations and followers of all other faiths. Muslims in the Middle East will feel the loss particularly deeply.
John Paul's 26-year pontificate will go down as one of the more remarkable in the church's history because he was not afraid to be strongly critical when he believed world leaders were behaving wrongly or dishonestly. From the very beginning of his reign, he announced his absolute support for peace and justice, not least for the Palestinians.
Remembering the man who had so often voiced sadness at the cycle of violence blighting the Holy Land, Palestinians gathered in the square in front of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and kept up vigils for him. Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, voiced the feelings of many: "He shared the sufferings of the Palestinian people ... We will miss him." Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser Al-Qidwa spoke for the world when he said that the pope "had contributed to building bridges between religions and civilizations and to consolidating the roots of peace and friendship between the peoples."
John Paul was equally strident in his condemnation of George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq which he described as "a crime against peace and a defeat for humanity." Until the very last minute, papal envoys were doing all they could to head off what he saw as not a solution but a bloody escalation of the challenge posed by Saddam.
John Paul meant what he said and millions of people, not only in the Middle East but around the world, were deeply grateful for his strong moral stands. It may yet prove that he was instrumental in stopping the Americans from turning the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions into a new crusade against Islam. Despite President Bush's typically unfortunate use of the word "crusade" after 9/11, American policy became notably more sensitive toward Islam. The pope meanwhile made a point of apologizing to the Muslim world for the original Crusades. Shortly after 9/11, John Paul called a day of prayer for peace at the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi which was attended by Muslim and Jewish religious leaders as well as representatives from Christian groups. His simple, somber message was that war and violence solved nothing and that nations would only advance through peace and brotherhood.
He was not prepared to compromise his clear moral view for anyone. His simplicity and abundantly clear good faith carried the Roman Catholic Church through the immense upheavals of post-Communist Europe and into the dangerous new world of aggressive American diplomacy.
Right after his election, John Paul said the Roman Church should "make known... our intention to really devote ourselves to the continual and special cause of peace, of development and justice among nations." And he never wavered from that view. He will be greatly missed.
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