Upon Yasser Arafat's (search) death, the Vatican and religious leaders worldwide issued heartfelt pleas for renewed peace efforts. But their reactions reflected long-standing disagreements about both the Palestinian leader himself and the intractable Mideast situation.
Arafat "will be remembered in radically different and often contradictory ways," the Lutheran World Federation (search) said in a statement that captured the spectrum of religious reaction.
To Palestinians supporter of their religious rights ... [but] for others he was an implacable foe, an obstacle for peace," said the joint statement from federation General Secretary Ishmael Noko and Bishop Mark Hanson, who heads both the federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of America's Union for Reform Judaism (search), bluntly agreed with the latter assessment: "Arafat chose terror and jihad over compromise and peace. He could have been the leader of a state and he chose instead to be the head of a violent and corrupt gang. His actions left Jews and Palestinians alike drenched in a sea of blood."
The World Council of Churches (search) saw virtually the opposite, stating that Arafat "came to the recognition that true justice embraces peace, security and hope for both Palestinians and Israelis," but ended his life "amid the rocks and thorns of occupation."
The Geneva-based council, made up of mainline Protestant and Orthodox denominations, recognized Arafat's contribution in "bringing the Palestinian people together" and working tenaciously to establish their homeland.
American Muslims said Arafat should be honored for drawing world attention to the Palestinian plight, whatever his failures in peacemaking and governing. And American Jews agreed with Yoffie that Arafat was an unrepentant terrorist who blocked peace.
Jewish leaders said Arafat never truly helped the Palestinians and they hoped his death would improve chances for a negotiated end to the intifada, though they also worried that Palestinians would turn to extremist leaders and further destabilize the region.
U.S. Muslim leaders countered that Arafat heroically popularized the Palestinian cause in the face of daunting obstacles created by Israel. But Muslims also said Palestinians needed a representative with appeal beyond his own people.
Arafat "lacked that charisma with the West in terms of his speaking ability and understanding the political culture of the West," said Nihad Awad, a Palestinian-American and executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Still, he made the transition from warrior to statesman under incredibly difficult circumstances, Awad said. "Nobody can ignore what he has done for the cause of justice for the Palestinians," said Awad, whose Washington-based nonprofit group defends U.S. Muslims' civil rights.
Muqtedar Khan, a Muslim political scientist at Michigan's Adrian College, said Arafat was more successful in "popularizing the idea of Palestine" than at governing.
Khan said Arafat's authoritarian and secretive rule "precluded the emergence of a successor who enjoys both domestic credibility and international respect. He leaves behind chaos and hopelessness as the peace process is indefinitely stalled and the Palestinian Authority is in disarray."
But there were also many guarded statements of hope, mixed with pleas for peace.
A Vatican condolence message said Pope John Paul II was praying "to the Prince of Peace that the star of harmony will soon shine on the Holy Land" so that Palestinians and Israelis "may live reconciled among themselves as two independent and sovereign states."
Lewis Roth of Americans for Peace Now, the U.S. counterpart of the Peace Now movement in Israel, said Arafat's death could either bring new opportunities to end the uprising or plunge the West Bank and Gaza into further chaos.
Arafat's passing "will provide for an opportunity for peace if a credible Palestinian leadership emerges that has legitimacy in eyes of the Palestinian people and that could keep pledges on the ground," Roth said.