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Asia's Catholics Pay Tribute to Pope John Paul II

As in other parts of the world, Asia's Catholics have been holding vigils and praying for Pope John Paul II's peaceful passing. Among the places where those vigils have been taking place is China, where the faithful gathered to pay tribute despite the state's ban on recognition of papal authority.

An early morning Mass at Beijing's officially sanctioned South Cathedral drew a large crowd of Chinese Catholics Saturday, many of whom were surprised to hear for the first time that Pope John Paul was gravely ill and possibly near death.

China's state media have given scant coverage to the Pope's illness, a manifestation of the Communist leadership's decades-old ban on allegiance to the Vatican.

But the Chinese government issued a surprise statement Saturday, sending good wishes to the ailing pontiff. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said China expressed its concern and hope that the Pope would receive "meticulous" medical treatment.

A 43-year-old man attending services at a so-called "underground" church in Beijing says he wishes China had allowed Pope John Paul to visit. He says he admired what he regarded as the Holy Father's sincerity and faith.

The man says he read one of the Pope's books years ago and admired his willingness to reach out to Buddhists, Marxists and others with different beliefs.

Pope John Paul saw Asia - with its tens of thousands of annual conversions - as fertile ground for evangelization, and once referred to the continent as "a Church that is still being born." He made at least a dozen trips to Asian nations, including South Korea, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Japan and Singapore.

In the Philippines - home to two-thirds of Asia's Catholics - his presence in 1995 drew a crowd of an estimated three-million people.

In a televised speech Saturday, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo paid tribute to the pontiff, saying he holds an "endearing place" in the hearts of the Philippine people.

"His serene courage and indomitable will remain a lasting source of our strength and hope, as we face the trials and challenges of a troubled world," she said.

Thousands gathered for vigils in India, including at the Calcutta headquarters of the missionary order founded by the late Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa - an Albanian-born nun beatified by Pope John Paul two years ago.

Among the countries in Asia that Pope John Paul had hoped to travel to and never did were Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Mongolia. Church officials say he never ruled out a visit to North Korea.