Pope John Paul II won a place in the hearts of many in the region by starting off the millennium with a tour of the Holy Land, the first by a pontiff in 36 years. His repeated calls for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his opposition to the war in Iraq also earned him favour.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s spokesman said the Arab world’s largest country will send a high-level delegation to the pontiff’s funeral.
“Egypt received the news (of the death) with deep sadness,” spokesman Sulaiman Awad said.
During his Holy Land tour in 2000, the Pope repeatedly urged the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Jews and sought to improve Roman Catholic relations with those faiths.
In Egypt, he tried to mend old rifts between Catholics and the Coptic Orthodox church, who make up the country’s largest Christian community. He also met with Greek Orthodox monks at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the Old Testament said God revealed himself to Moses and gave him his Ten Commandments.
The meeting came despite the historic split between the Vatican and Orthodox churches nearly 1,000 years ago over ecclesiastical differences.
Jamil Abu-Bakr, a leading member of Jordan’s hardline Islamic Action Front, expressed “our heartfelt condolences to the Vatican and the followers of the Catholic denomination of the Christian church.”
The Saudi English-speaking daily Arab News said the Pope will be mourned by “followers of all other faiths”. An editorial said: “Muslims in the Middle East will feel the loss particularly deeply.”
The Pope’s 2001 visit to the revered Omayyad Mosque in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was the first by a leader of the Roman Catholic church to a Muslim place of worship. During his Holy Land trip, he also left a note at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and expressed sorrow for suffering of Jews at Christian hands, particularly during the Holocaust.
“The Jewish people will remember the Pope, who bravely put an end to historic injustice by officially rejecting prejudices and accusations against Jews,” Israel’s President Moshe Katsav told Israel Radio.
In Syria, an arch-foe of Israel, prominent Islamic cleric Sheik Salah Keftaro said the world has lost a leader who advocated “dialogue and coexistence”.
Mourning for John Paul II transcended religious barriers in Asia with flags lowered to half mast from Hindu India to Australia, Buddhist Thailand to the mainly Catholic Philippines.
Special masses were held at churches across the region - including communist countries China and Vietnam where religious freedom is repressed and whose leaders have long been at odds with the Vatican - while tributes from leaders of all faiths continued to pour in.
In India the national flag flew at half mast and all official entertainment was cancelled as the country entered the second day of three days’ official state mourning and special masses were held in churches.
In predominantly Buddhist Thailand flags will remain lowered until today at government buildings, while in Australia flags on Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge were also flying half-mast yesterday.
Asia’s biggest Catholic country, the Philippines, began official mourning, while President Gloria Arroyo announced she would be attending the pontiff’s funeral in Rome this week.
The country, which has some 68 million Catholics, would remain in a national period of mourning and flags will fly at half-mast until the Pope was buried.
In tiny East Timor, the former Indonesian territory which is 90% Catholic, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said a statue honouring the Pope would be constructed in the Tasi Tolo district of the capital Dili, the scene of the Pope’s main appearance in the city during his 1989 visit. The nation is also observing three days of mourning.
Catholics only make up about 5% of Indonesia’s mostly Muslim 214 million population, but special masses were held at churches across the islands.