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Pope John Paul II dies, World grieves

                                               (Reuters/Saturday April 02, 2005)

By Philip Pullella and Crispian Balmer

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul II, whose 26-year papacy helped defeat Communism in Europe but left a Roman Catholic Church divided over his rigorous orthodoxy, died on Saturday after a prolonged struggle with ill health.

"Our beloved Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father," said Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, announcing the death to a huge crowd that had gathered under the Pontiff's windows to pray for a miraculous recovery that never came.

A wave of applause rippled through St Peter's Square, in an Italian sign of respect for the dead, and then hush descended, with many of the faithful weeping uncontrollably.

The Pope died in his bed at 9:37 p.m (1437 EST), surrounded by the only family he had -- his closest Polish aides.

As the news spread through Rome, thousands of faithful streamed to the Vatican to join those already there, paying homage to a man who revolutionized his office and took his uncompromising message far beyond the confines of the Vatican.

The slow mourning toll of one of the great bells of St Peter's Basilica was the only sound to break the silence.

Far beyond the Vatican walls, John Paul's death triggered a rare outpouring of global grief, with people of all faiths and none praising his humanity, courage and moral integrity.

The exact cause of death was not given but the Pope's health had deteriorated steadily over the past decade with the onset of Parkinson's Disease and arthritis. Earlier this year it took a sharp turn for the worse.

He had an operation in February to ease serious breathing problems, but never regained his strength and last Thursday developed an infection and high fever that soon precipitated heart failure, kidney problems and ultimately death.

"We're grateful to God for sending such a man, a son of Poland, who became the bishop of Rome and a hero for the ages," President Bush said in a televised address from the White House.

Around 130,000 people packed into St Peter's Square within two hours of his death, necks craned up toward the lighted windows of the Pope's apartments where his once vigorous body lay.

"I can't believe that's it. I know God will provide a new Pope but we'll miss him so much," said Irishman Adrian McCracken, who apologized for crying.


Some Italian newspapers reported that the Pope's last word before dying had been "Amen."

The Vatican announced that the Pope's body would lie in state for public viewing in St Peter's Basilica from Monday afternoon at the earliest. No date was set for a funeral, but it was likely to happen between Wednesday and Friday.

Many countries decreed periods of national mourning, with his native Poland announcing six days of mourning and Communist Cuba three days. Italy also called for three days of mourning.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano will say a Requiem Mass for the Pope on Sunday at 10.30 a.m. (0430 EDT) in St Peter's Square.

The conclave to elect a new Pope will start in 15 to 20 days, with 117 cardinals from around the globe gathering in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel to choose a successor.

Many red-hatted princes of the Catholic Church had rushed to Rome in recent days to be near the Pope in his dying hours. Many others will arrive before the first General Congregation of the Cardinals gathers on Monday to decide on the funeral details.

There is no favorite candidate to succeed John Paul. The former Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was himself a rank outsider when he was elevated to the papacy on Oct. 16, 1978.

In Poland bells rang out across the country and sirens wailed in the capital Warsaw as news of the death dashed any lingering hopes of a miraculous recovery.

"I am overwhelmed by pain. I have prayed for two days and thought that a miracle will happen, but it didn't happen and now we can only weep," said Teresa Swidnicka in Krakow.

Wojtyla, who saw his country occupied by the Nazis in his late teens, cut his teeth as a clergyman when Poland was run by atheist pro-Soviet communists after World War II.

Apart from his battle against communism and quest for global peace, John Paul will also be remembered for his unswerving defense of traditional Vatican doctrines. He drew criticism from liberal Catholics who opposed his proclamations against contraception, abortion, married priests and women clergy.


The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, John Paul threw off the stiff trappings of the papacy, meeting ordinary people everywhere he traveled -- 129 countries and territories in all.

But as the years passed, his energy faded.

Once a lithe athlete and powerful speaker, he suffered a series of health dramas, including a near-fatal shooting by a Turkish gunman in 1981. By the end of his life he could no longer walk and his voice was often reduced to a raspy whisper.

Earlier this year, the breathing crises silenced the great communicator and he failed dramatically in two attempts to address the faithful last Easter Sunday and again on Wednesday.

The Vatican said the Pope had received the Roman Catholic sacrament reserved for the sick and dying.

"The Holy Father's final hours were marked by the uninterrupted prayer of all those who were assisting him in his pious death," a Vatican statement said.

Tributes poured in from around the world.

"The world has lost a religious leader who was revered across people of all faiths and none. He was an inspiration, a man of extraordinary faith, dignity and courage," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The Pope was an untiring advocate of Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue. He was the first Pontiff to preach in a Protestant church and a synagogue and to set foot in a mosque.

A decade after witnessing the fall of Communism, the Pope fulfilled another dream. He visited the Holy Land in March 2000, and, praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall, asked forgiveness for Catholic sins against Jews over the centuries.

Some Catholics hope the next Pope will be more liberal.

But John Paul appointed more than 95 percent of the cardinals who will elect his successor, thus stacking the odds that his controversial teachings will not be tampered with.