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Catholics Across Asia Mourn Passing of Pope

  • Kurt Achin

Catholics across Asia are mourning the passing of Pope John Paul, the Second. National leaders and private worshippers are recalling a man they believe helped free the region from past dictators, and who focused on the needs of the world's poor.

Here in Seoul, hundreds of Catholics filled Myeongdong Cathedral to pay respects to Pope John Paul, the Second, who died Saturday night in Rome. Dozens of women covered their heads with white veils, a traditional Korean sign of mourning. As one mass ended, hundreds more stood in line outside for the start of the next service.

Earlier, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun released a statement expressing the "deep sorrow" of the South Korean government and people, praising the late pontiff as an "apostle of peace."

Pope John Paul was one of the most widely traveled pontiffs in history, and visited many Asian countries, including two stops in South Korea, during his 26-year papacy. Reverend Paik Nam-yeong, who serves at Myeongdong Cathdral, reflected on those visits, which came before South Korea's military dictators had given way to elected presidents.

"He gave a lot of affection to the Korean people, especially," he said. "We Korean people suffered from dictatorship at the time. His visiting to Korea was like a light, or a hope, or a blessing to the Korean people."

There are nearly four million Roman Catholics in South Korea. Many in the country say they admire the pope, who came from Communist-ruled Poland, as a symbol of perseverance under dictatorship.

In predominantly Muslim Indonesia, some Catholics are viewing Pope John Paul's death as the latest in a series of tests of faith. About 150 worshippers gathered Sunday for an outdoor mass on Nias Island, their first since last Monday's earthquake, which killed an estimated 1,300 people there. That quake came three months after a larger one spawned a tsunami that killed 300,000 people across the Indian Ocean.

In Australia, where almost a quarter of the population is Catholic, Prime Minister John Howard praised the 84-year-old pontiff as a "great moral and religious figure," who played a key role in the defeat of communism.

Australian Catholic priest Peter Clifford says it is a time to look forward, as well as back, at the pope's legacy.

"We must think about the death of a good man and somebody who was our father for all those years," he said. "What kind of a man could possibly follow a man such as John Paul? Probably no one can do it, but they have got to select somebody who will guide the church, doing it in a sensible, gradual sort of way."

Church bells tolled across Manila, capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines.

John Paul's 1981 visit to the Philippines is widely credited with having galvanized its citizens to stage "People Power" protests, which helped overturn the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Filipinos say they view the pontiff as a champion of the poor and dispossessed.

One Filipino worshipper said his visit brought the country an enormous sense of pride.

"The first time that he came over, I felt that he was giving us a very, very great honor, because very, very few popes have come over to the Philippines," he said.

Officials in the legal Patriotic Catholic Church in China, which outlaws formal recognition of the Vatican's authority, sent a telegram of condolence to the Holy See "on behalf of the country's five million Catholics." Many Catholic worshippers in China belong to illegal "underground" churches, rather than the state-backed Church.

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