Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered in Latin America, the world's most populous Roman Catholic region, to pray for Pope John Paul II.

Throughout his 26-year papacy, John Paul has had a profound impact on Latin America, which is home to nearly half of the world's more than 1 billion Catholics. During a Mass in Mexico in 1999, the pontiff described Latin America as the "continent of hope" for the future.

From Mexico this week, President Vicente Fox sent messages of love and support to Vatican City.

In Cuba, the archbishop of Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega was allowed to appear on state-run television to advise the island's many Catholics that the pope was on his deathbed.

For decades after Cuba's Communist revolution in 1959, Fidel Castro's government barred Cubans from celebrating Christmas, but the holiday was reinstated one month before John Paul's only visit to Cuba, in 1998.

Latin America, along with Africa, is one of the parts of the world where the Catholic church is experiencing significant growth. This has led some analysts to speculate that Latin candidates might be prominent during the college of cardinals' meetings to choose the next pope. Brazil's Cardinal Claudio Hummes and Cardinal Oscar Andrews Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras have been mentioned as potential future leaders of the worldwide church.