World leaders of all faiths pay tribute to a 'hero of the ages'

From Tibet to Cuba, the world's leaders joined forces yesterday to pay tribute to Pope John Paul II in a reflection of his impact around the world. Few corners of the globe appeared untouched by the death of the late pope, with dozens of religious and political leaders praising his wide-reaching legacy.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, led political tributes in the UK to a man he deemed an "inspiration" in his quest for humanity and social justice. "He was an inspiration, a man of extraordinary faith, dignity and courage," he said.

Amid a national outpouring of mourning across Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, highlighted the values for which the Pope had fought. "We are grateful to him for the tireless and difficult work he carried out unstintingly against all forms of totalitarianism, violence, oppression and moral degradation," he said.

Jacques Chirac, the French Prime Minister, added: "This mourning deeply marks France as well as every French person who identifies with the message of the Catholic Church."

Among the tributes was praise from Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who met the Polish-born pontiff in 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall ended the Cold War. "John Paul II had a huge impact on ending the Cold War," he said. "He took an unfailing interest in life in the USSR and Russia and he supported the democratic reforms in our country."

In the US, President George Bush, a conservative Christian, led mourning for a religious leader described as a "hero of the ages".

Across South America, where most of the continent's inhabitants are devout Catholics, leaders also highlighted the achievements of the late pope.

Vicente Fox, Mexico's President, said: "John Paul II was an exceptional man, his legacy will transcend generations."

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, added: "The suffering he did not hide in his last years never altered his determination."

Catholics across the religiously conservative continent of Africa praised a man whose teachings had growing appeal for them. Olusegun Obasango, the Nigerian President, said: "Pope John Paul II not only visited Nigeria twice but stood by the country in its fight against dictatorship and injustice."

Praise for the dedication of the late pope was not confined to Catholic circles. Silvan Shalom, the Israeli Foreign minister, said: "Israel, the Jewish people and the entire world, lost today a great champion of reconciliation and brotherhood between the faiths." Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, also paid tribute. "We have lost a very important religious figure who dedicated his life to peace and justice for all."

The Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader, said he had shared with the Pope not only their struggles against communist rule and a desire for harmony between religions, but also a concern to put spiritual values before the material.

China, which does not allow its Catholics to recognise Vatican authority, expressed condolences, but said it hoped the Holy See, "under the leadership of the new pope, will do something conducive to the improvement of Sino-Vatican relations".