PARIS, April 2 -- In Bethlehem, bells chimed at the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. In Paris, thousands packed churches and cathedrals for midnight prayers. And around the world, presidents and prime ministers offered words of praise for Pope John Paul II and his message of peace, his battle against communism in Eastern Europe and his efforts to build bridges between religions.
Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, said John Paul II was "extremely concerned about the world we lived in, and like me, he also felt that in war, all are losers."
Here in Europe, the pope was particularly remembered for his role in helping bring down the Iron Curtain that once separated the communist-run East of the continent from the West. In Germany, divided for decades by the Berlin Wall, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was quoted by the Reuters news agency saying, "Pope John Paul II wrote history. By his efforts and through his impressive personality, he changed our world."
Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said in a statement, "By combating the falsehoods of communism and proclaiming the true dignity of the individual, his was the moral force behind victory in the Cold War."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, "Throughout a hard and often difficult life, he stood for social justice and on the side of the oppressed, whether as a young man facing the Nazi occupation in Poland or later in challenging the Communist regime. He never wavered, never flinched, in the struggle for what he thought was good and right." Blair was quoted by the Associated Press.
"It is with deep emotion that I have come to learn of the death of His Holiness, John Paul II," said French President Jacques Chirac. Chirac said the pope, with his "numerous pastoral visits" to France, had "particularly honored our country."
In the Middle East, John Paul II was remembered both for his efforts at improving ties between the Catholic church and the Jewish faith -- under his papacy, Israel and the Vatican exchanged ambassadors for the first time -- as well as for his advocacy of the rights of the Palestinians. Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called the pope's death "a great loss for all humanity," according to news agency reports from Jerusalem.
"He promoted inter-faith understanding and dialogue, with a willingness to address the past, and a profound determination to build a future of understanding and brotherhood between all faiths," Shalom said.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, was quoted calling John Paul II "a great religious figure who devoted his life to defending the values of peace, freedom, justice and equality for all races and religions, as well as our people's right to independence."
In 2000, the pope, then already ailing, made a grueling trip to the Holy Land for millennium celebrations for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Here in Paris, at the Gothic-era Notre Dame cathedral in the center of the French capital, thousands of mourners streamed in for midnight prayers, with a huge portrait of the pope clutching a crucifix suspended in the front of the altar. A notice outside on the cathedral's grand doors announced the death of the pontiff, the exact time -- 9:37 p.m. (2:37 p.m. EST) -- and announced that the church would remain open all night for mourners.
Across the Seine river, at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church, hundreds of mourners lit candles both inside the church and on the cobblestone square outside, as organ music filtered onto the terraces of nearby cafes.
"I love this pope," said Beleza De Sousa, who took a commuter train from the suburbs to central Paris to pray for John Paul II at Notre Dame.
The pope's death was also marked in Cuba, which was officially declared an atheist country after the 1959 revolution until the early 1990s. Church bells rang every half hour on Saturday for the pope, and the government was planning to allow full coverage of his funeral, the Reuters news agency reported from Havana. John Paul II made a landmark visit to the island nation in January, 1998, in a visit that increased religious freedom for Cubans, including reinstating Christmas as a national holiday and allowing religious processions.
"Cubans will always see Pope John Paul II as a friend who was concerned about the poor, who fought neoliberalism and struggled for peace," said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, as quoted by Reuters.