BEIJING – Word of Pope John Paul II's (search) death spread slowly Sunday through China's (search) capital, where congregations packed government-sanctioned churches but state-run media released only a trickle of information.
At the Southern Cathedral, Beijing's largest Catholic church (search), believers sang hymns and clasped their hands tightly in prayer, some clutching rosary beads. Others lined up to light red and yellow rose-shaped candles.
"Our Pope John Paul II passed away ... God has called him to rest in his arms," said Father Sun Shangen. "Let's pray for God's grace for him to go to heaven soon."
At another Catholic church near Tiananmen Square, many in the congregation crowded around a notice posted outside about the pope's death.
"I feel very sad and pained," said Shen Qun, a member of the church. "It's a big event for all the global religions. The world is a complicated place and I hope the new pope will be able to make contributions to world peace while promoting his thoughts."
No official comment was issued by the Beijing government, which cut off ties with the Vatican shortly after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power in 1949. Relations between them have remained strained.
Worship is allowed only in government-controlled churches, although millions of Catholics belong to unofficial congregations loyal to Rome. The government's Catholic church claims 4 million believers, but the Cardinal Kung Foundation, a U.S.-based religious monitoring group, says the unofficial church has 12 million followers.
In some areas, particularly the politically sensitive capital of Beijing, members are routinely harassed and their leaders arrested.
State television read a brief dispatch announcing the pope's death on its morning news broadcast. State-run newspapers made no mention of the death, all making a nationwide tree-planting campaign their top story.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported the death and said the Catholic Patriotic Association of China and the Chinese Catholic Bishops College had 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."
Chinese Internet sites — tightly monitored by the government for postings it considers subversive — carried the news but provided little detail. Chatrooms were virtually silent about the matter.
On the Web site of the People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, only two postings were found.
"The pope is the most influential person in the world in modern times," read one.
Said the other: "The passing of the pope is the biggest news in the world today. Is discussion allowed?"