The bells of churches everywhere toll for 'John Paul the Great'

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The Independent Online

Crowds of the faithful gathered across the globe last night to mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, as tributes from leaders, both religious and secular, poured in.

Crowds of the faithful gathered across the globe last night to mourn the death of Pope John Paul II, as tributes from leaders, both religious and secular, poured in.

To the sound of bells tolling at the Vatican and across Rome, a crowd of around 60,000 people prayed in St Peter's Square, for a man already being dubbed by some Catholics as "John Paul the Great". Minutes later, the crowds showed a traditionally Italian mark of respect they burst into applause.

As news of the Pope's death spread, people gathered to mourn and remember his life. Throughout the world, the death was met with silence, sadness and tears. Candles were lit at altars, flags were lowered to half mast, bells were rung at cathedrals, including Westminster, while prayers were offered.

The faithful in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas said special prayers. Even China, which does not allow its Catholics to recognise the Vatican's authority, had earlier taken the unusual step of expressing concern about the Pope's health. A silent vigil was kept at the cathedral of Xuan Wu Men.

In the Holy Land, Jews, Muslims and Christians paid homage to the late Pope's tireless efforts to embrace people of different faiths and recalled his visit in March 2000 when he urged Muslims and Jews to coexist peacefully. "He wanted peace for everyone," said Mohammad Ahmed, 22, a Palestinian Muslim who lives in Jerusalem's Old City. "He wanted people of different religions to be like brothers, not like Jews and Muslims have been."

In the UK, the bells of Westminster cathedral rang in sombre memory. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, hailed the late Pope as one of the greatest. Hundreds of British Catholics headed to the cathedral when the news broke from Rome, their faces etched with sadness.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said: "We have lost a great leader of our modern world. John Paul II was an extraordinary man, one of the greatest Popes in the church's 2,000-year history. We will remember him for his tireless witness to hope, to freedom, and to the dignity of human life."

People queued by the altar to pay their respects in front of a portrait of the Pope and inscribe tributes in a book . "You enriched everyone's life" read one message. A requiem Mass will be held at the cathedral today.

Tony Blair expressed his sadness, describing the late pontiff as a "remarkable man" who had stood for social justice and against oppression.

Mr Blair said: "The world has lost a religious leader who was revered across people of all faiths and none. He was an inspiration, a man of extraordinary faith, dignity and courage."

The Queen also expressed her "deep sorrow" and remembered "the untiring efforts of Pope John Paul II in promoting peace and goodwill throughout the world".

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, described John Paul II as "a leader of manifest holiness and a faithful and prayerful friend of the Anglican church".

"There will be time in the days ahead for the proper tributes to be paid; for now we remember his life and ministry with thankfulness and hold the church that he led in our thoughts and prayers."

Across the US where the Pope retained a devoted following among 65 million Catholics, special masses were held yesterday in his last hours.

US President George Bush paid tribute calling the Pope "an inspiration to us all" and ordered flags over the White House to be lowered to half-mast. "The Catholic church has lost its shepherd. The world has lost a champion of human freedom," the President said in a televised statement.

From the late Pope's native country, Poland, Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and Solidarity leader, said: "I think we shall keep discovering how much the Holy Father worked for us and struggled for us. He spoke to us through his illness and through his suffering served to the very end ... [Without him] there would be no end of Communism or at least much later and the end would have been bloody."

In France, the bells of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral rang out 84 times - once for each year of the Pope's life. Jacques Chirac, the French President, praised the late Pope's "unshakeable faith, exemplary authority and admirable ardour", saying he "touched spirits and hearts" with his courage and determination.

In Portugal, the government declared three days of national mourning.

Kofi Annan, the United Nation's Secretary-General, recalled fondly meetings with the Pope, particularly indiscussions about war and peace while considering what to do in Kosovo. Mr Annan said: "He ... [was] extremely concerned about the world we lived in, and like me, he also felt that in war, all are losers."

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