Diplomatic coup: Pope’s funeral brings together bitter adversaries
 
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
 

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The April 8 funeral of Pope John Paul II may have marked his last diplomatic coup when more than 200 heads of state and government delegates -- some bitter adversaries -- came together to pay their last respects.

U.S. President George W. Bush was just yards away from President Mohammed Khatami of Iran, a country he has labeled part of an "axis of evil." Khatami, who met with the pope in 1999, said the April 8 gathering should be a springboard for peace.

"It was very important for me to pay my respects to John Paul II," Khatami told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

"The presence of such high-level world figures demonstrates the world's respect" for the pope, he said April 8.

"I wish this day could be a moment that makes us hope for a future of peace, not of conflict and hostility," said the Iranian president.

Representatives of troubled neighbors -- India and Pakistan as well as Israel and the Palestinian National Authority -- were seated in the same section reserved for heads of state in St. Peter's Square.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia were among the political leaders there who had met with the pope and, at times, had been praised and reproved by him.

During Katsav's visit to the Vatican in December 2002, Pope John Paul urged him to make sure Christians could celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, West Bank, which was occupied by the Israelis and was under curfew at the time.

During his February 2004 meeting with Qureia, the pope said people in the Holy Land must not yield to "the temptation of discouragement, let alone to hatred or retaliation."

The pope repeatedly voiced to Bush his strong disapproval over the invasion of Iraq, most recently during the president's June 2004 visit to the Vatican.

But Pope John Paul's funeral gave the world's leaders the opportunity for a fresh start.

A senior Vatican official told reporters that "the funeral gave these leaders a sense of freedom. They were not afraid that people would read their actions politically."

"I saw Israelis, Muslims who greeted each other with gestures of affection,"he said.

Among the dignitaries Khatami greeted was Israel Singer, president of the World Jewish Congress, reported the Italian news agency ANSA.

"One could see these persons who clearly felt freer" than they do, for example, during U.N. assemblies or meetings, the senior Vatican official said.

Vatican Radio called the gathering of heads of state representing some 141 nations around the world "a sort of planetary parliament, assembled for a special session under the sign of common prayer and human solidarity" toward a pope who was loved by many near and far.

All of Latin America was represented at the funeral, while many leaders of nations of the former Soviet Union, including Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, were present.

Polish Solidarity leader and former Polish President Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, were among the many dignitaries.

Other notable guests included Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and the kings, queens or other royalty from Spain, Belgium, Great Britain and Jordan.

But the presence of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian threw Vatican-China relations into disarray and reportedly triggered mainland China's decision to scrap plans to send a delegation representing the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, was present for the pope's funeral in a leg cast. With crutches, he gingerly maneuvered among the chairs to take his seat.

After the funeral, Mexican President Vicente Fox told Italian media that the funeral made him reflect on "what it is to be human and the importance of existing for others, of serving ... the importance of commitment, of solidarity, of inclusion, the importance of fighting to eradicate poverty in Mexico. I was thinking a good deal about these things there in front of the pope's coffin."

Noted absences included Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, according to news agencies, did not want to anger Russia's Orthodox leaders by attending. Russia was represented by Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro sent the head of the country's Parliament to represent the communist island nation, which the pope visited in 1998. Castro instead paid his respects to the pope by attending an April 4 memorial Mass in Havana's cathedral.

News agencies said the record-breaking Pope John Paul set two more records April 8: He attracted the largest number of official delegates ever to attend a papal funeral, and his was the first papal funeral attended by a sitting U.S. president.

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