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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

POPE JOHN PAUL II: Asia Remembers a Champion for the Downtrodden

As Father Paul Nettham, pastor of the Thai capital's Holy Redeemer Church prepares his congregation at Sunday mass for holy communion, he tells the packed church in a somber voice: ''For our beloved Pope John Paul II, who's passed from this life to an everlasting one...Lord have mercy.''

A resounding ''Lord have mercy'' comes back from the pews. And this prayer was repeated from Thailand to the Philippines, India, China and East Timor, at the second Sunday of Easter, as church bells tolled for the pontiff who died late Saturday aged 84.

While Catholics in the old Europe are grappling to justify their existence in a rapidly changing world, Asian, African and Latin American churches are fast attracting new converts and priests. Out of the close to one billion Catholics in the world, it is estimated that in Asia alone there are 100 million followers.

And for many Asian Catholics, Pope John Paul II was a champion for the poor and downtrodden.

''He was always aware of the people around him and sensitive to the injustices they suffered,'' Kaitsuda Suriyayos, a magazine editor, told IPS after attending Sunday mass. ''He was a man of peace and the world will never forget him.''

In Asia's newest country, East Timor, the pope is well loved and remembered for sowing the seeds for mass demonstrations against the Indonesian army - the island's former occupiers.

As church bells tolled early Sunday morning in the fledgling country where 90 percent of its 600,000 population are Catholic, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri declared a three-day mourning for the pontiff with the country's flag flown at half-mast

''To the East Timorese people, Pope John Paul II is a hero. In October 1989 he came to East Timor knowing we were oppressed by the Indonesians,'' local journalist Jose Antonio Belo, in the capital Dili, told IPS in a phone interview.

''The Timorese youths took that as an opportunity to protest against the Indonesian occupation and that was the start of organised demonstrations by the clandestine movement,'' he pointed out.

Fransec Valls, of the Madrid-based daily 'El Pais' was one of the journalists who witnessed the demonstrations during the pope's visit.

''The extreme care with which the Indonesian government had prepared for the Papal visit to the East Timor capital Dili, turned out to have been in vain,'' he wrote. ''Shouts of 'Viva Timor Leste' in favour of an independent East Timor echoed in Portuguese and Tetum when John Paul II concluded mass with the versicle 'ite missa est'.''

In May 2002, East Timor became independent after being administered for two years by the United Nations, following a 1999 referendum where the East Timorese overwhelmingly voted to break away from Indonesia.

In the predominately Catholic Philippines, the pope also holds a special place in the hearts of most Filipinos and he is credited with providing inspiration for the People's Power revolt against the dictatorial Marcos regime.

According to Philippine journalist Ahmed Toledo many Filipinos were taken up by the 1980 birth of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland, in which the pope had a role to play. A year earlier, after his consecration as pope, John Paul II returned to his native Poland for a nine- day visit that heralded the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire.

The trade union movement would enlist 10 million Poles as members, and priests visiting the imprisoned Solidarity leaders often concealed messages of encouragement from the pope in their robes.

''That sent a message to all of us who were fighting to overthrow the regime of Ferdinand Marcos,'' said Toledo in an interview. ''The pope sort of made it known that it was justified for a Catholic nation to remove dictators.''

Added Toledo: ''The struggle in Poland was certainly an inspiration for us and this led to the People's Power events in 1986 which saw Marcos fleeing the country.''

In the autumn of 1989, Solidarity played the pivotal role in bringing down Poland's communist government and replacing it with a democracy.

Philippine President Gloria Arroyo led the nation in expressing a ''deep sense of grief'' over the pontiff's death.

''Our people receive the news of his death with a deep sense of grief and loss,'' Arroyo said in a statement.

''The world will miss a great spiritual bridge among all nations,'' she said, adding that ''the weak and oppressed will always remember their hero and advocate who sowed peace and love by his awesome charisma and noble deeds''.

Meanwhile in China, which only allows its Catholics to worship in officially sanctioned groups with no ties to the Vatican, state-run media released only a trickle of information.

The official 'Xinhua News Agency' reported the death on its domestic Chinese-language service and its English-language world service shortly after 2000 GMT.

'Xinhua' also said the Catholic Patriotic Association of China and the Chinese Catholic Bishops College sent a telegram to the Vatican expressing ''deep condolences.''

''It is very sorrowful to know that Pope John Paul II has passed away at the call of God, to rest in Lord for good,'' 'Xinhua' cited the telegram as saying. ''It would be a great loss for the pastoral and evangelical works of the Universal Church.''

China's Communist government, which took power after the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan in 1949, expelled the Vatican's ambassador in 1951 and ties with the Roman Catholic church were severed.

The internuncio Archbishop Antonio Riberi escaped to the island of Taiwan off the south- eastern Chinese coast, which the Holy See continued to recognise as China's official government. In the years following Riberi's expulsion, Catholics were condemned as ''anti- government'' and ''anti-revolution'' and a huge number of bishops, priests and lay people were imprisoned.

In India, where there are 16 million Catholics, special masses were planned in churches in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the predominantly Christian northeast, reports said.

The pope visited India twice during his 26-year papacy -- in 1986 and 1999. The latter visit stirred controversy with Hindu nationalists who had demanded a papal apology for alleged religious conversions by Christian missionaries in Hindu majority India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Sunday described the pontiff as a ''people's pope'' who especially endeared himself to Indians when he initiated the process of granting sainthood to Nobel laureate Mother Teresa, who founded the Calcutta-based Missionaries of Charity that cared for the sick and poor in the eastern Indian city.

She died in 1997 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 19, 2003, in one of the fastest beatifications in Catholic history.

Sonny Inbaraj
BANGKOK, Apr 3 (IPS) -


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