Europe, Headlines

POPE JOHN PAUL II: ‘Founding Father of a United Europe’

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Apr 4 2005 (IPS) - Leading European Union officials have paid tribute to Pope John Paul II, highlighting his role in helping to reunify a divided Europe after communism.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his "deep sorrow" on learning about the death of Pope John Paul II Saturday at the age of 84.

In a statement Sunday, Barroso had "a special message of solidarity" for the Pope’s home country Poland, one of the biggest countries to join the European Union (EU) last May.

He hailed the "essential role" of the Polish Pope in helping reunify Europe, adding that for that reason he deserved the title of "the founding father of a united Europe."

"John Paul II will be remembered as someone who played an essential role in the reunification of Europe and in the advance of ideas of freedom and democracy in our continent. Europeans will never forget his struggle for peace and human dignity," the head of the EU executive arm added.

Representatives of the Luxembourg presidency of the EU echoed such acclaim, saying John Paul II had contributed to the reunification of eastern and western Europe.

"On the occasion of the death of His Holiness Pope John Paul II, the presidency of the European Union pays homage to the reunifiying role played by the sovereign pontiff, his relentless commitment to humanist principles, to democracy and human rights," it said in a statement.

"The European Union’s presidency bows to he who contributed to reunite once again East and West on the European continent," it added.

European Parliament President Josep Borrell paid tribute to John Paul II’s solid support for European unity.

Recalling the Pope’s long-standing wish to see Europe united, Borrell said his "premonitory views have become reality."

Javier Solana, EU chief for external relations, added his condolences to the many tributes that have been pouring in since the Pope passed away.

"The world – not just people of Catholic faith – has lost an unforgettable spiritual leader, an enlightened champion of peace and solidarity for all. We will sorely miss a great European spirit of our times," he said Sunday.

Around two million pilgrims from around the world are expected to visit the Vatican City in the coming days to pay their last tributes to Pope John Paul II. Several European leaders are also expected to attend the funeral.

The Pope’s death also put on hold election campaign in Italy, while British Prime Minister Tony Blair postponed the expected announcement Monday of general elections due May 5. The announcement is likely Tuesday.

Political parties in the European Parliament praised the Pope’s efforts to bring people from different religions closer together.

"For decades, Pope John Paul II offered immeasurable inspiration for millions of Christians around the world. His spiritual legacy and leadership is unprecedented in the history of the Catholic Church," said Wilfried Martens, president of the Christian Democrat European People’s Party in the Parliament.

"His efforts to encourage closer dialogue among all Christian faiths and his willingness to open dialogue with other major religions are just small examples of his spiritual foresight. The sacred path opened by Pope John Paul II will not be easy to follow," he added.

The Pope’s death dominated European newspapers.

While much of the European press has focused on the legacy that the Pope leaves behind, there is also criticism of John Paul II’s pontificate.

Credited with a key role in bringing down Soviet communism, John Paul was not so open to debate within the Catholic Church, many commentators said. Some liberals claim the Pope’s unyielding views on birth control and sexual morality have resulted in a decline in worshippers.

The French daily newspaper Liberation said John Paul II became a "real statesman" who has left a political as well as a doctrinal legacy. It said he accelerated the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, and that he was a "great reconciler" between Catholics and Jews.

But it said that as a result of his repeated condemnation of homosexuality, contraception and abortion, he will be remembered as "the embodiment of a severe father" who showed little regard for feminist demands and "obstinately ignored the ravages of AIDS.."

In Spain, Barcelona’s El Periodico was also not without criticism of the Pope’s leadership.

The paper said that both his devoted followers and those who "felt alienated from an institution they did not understand and which did not understand them" will hope the next pontiff will be a "bridge-builder".

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