CAIRO, Egypt – Muslims, Christians and Jews across the Middle East (search) expressed sorrow Sunday after the death of Pope John Paul II (search), who many in the region credit with demanding religious tolerance and opposing the Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
From Egypt to Iran (search), government officials, religious leaders and ordinary citizens praised the pope as a man of peace who brought his message to the Middle East in 2000 during his acclaimed Holy Land tour, the first by a pontiff in 36 years.
The pope also opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and made repeated calls for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two flashpoint issues which have plagued the region in recent years.
"John Paul II tried to defend Iraq and was against the war. Will the next pope be like him?" asked Hanna Kilani, spokesman for Jordan's Roman Catholic bishop, Salim al-Sayegh.
In Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran, President Mohammad Khatami expressed deep sorrow, state-run radio reported, quoting Khatami as saying the "pope was a devotee of peace, justice and righteousness."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's spokesman said the Arab world's largest country will send a high-level delegation to the pontiff's funeral. "Egypt received the news (of the pontiff's death) with deep sadness," spokesman Sulaiman Awad said.
John Paul, the most-traveled pope in history, enjoys a special place in the hearts of Arab Christians and many Muslims who feel he has given them special attention during his papacy.
While visiting Egypt in 2000, the pope tried to mend old rifts between Catholics and the Coptic Orthodox church, who make up Egypt's largest Christian community.
He also met with Greek Orthodox monks at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where the Old Testament said God revealed himself to Moses and gave him his Ten Commandments. The meeting came despite the historic split between the Vatican and Orthodox churches nearly 1,000 years ago over ecclesiastical differences.
Jamil Abu-Bakr, a leading member of Jordan's hardline Islamic Action Front, which advocates Israel's annihilation, said: "We express our heartfelt condolences to the Vatican and the followers of the Catholic denomination of the Christian church."
"We appreciate the late Pope's position in supporting Arab causes, like the Palestinian issue and Iraq, and we hope the Vatican will continue in the same path," added Abu-Bakr, whose group is the largest opposition party in the kingdom.
The Islamic Action Front, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, criticized John Paul on 2000 for participating in a ceremony at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to mourn Jews killed in the Holocaust.
After a Sunday mass in Amman's Roman Catholic church, lawyer George al-Wir, 41, said: "I cried and shouted when I heard about his death. I used to feel he's part of my family as if he's my father and the father of all the Christians."
In Lebanon, Maronite Catholic Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir said the pope dedicated his life to "glorifying God, raising the stature of the church and serving humanity, particularly the suffering."
Sfeir told a Sunday sermon at his church's mountain seat at Bkirki, northeast of Beirut, that he recalled how the pope closely followed Lebanese events, particularly its ravaging 1975-90 civil war, and the canonization of two Lebanese saints.
The Saudi English-speaking daily Arab News said the pope will be mourned by "followers of all other faiths."
"Muslims in the Middle East will feel the loss particularly deeply," an editorial said.
The pope's 2000 visit to the revered Omayyad Mosque in the Syrian capital, Damascus, was the first by a leader of the Roman Catholic church to a Muslim place of worship. During his Holy Land trip, he also left a note at Jerusalem's Western Wall and expressed sorrow for suffering of Jews at Christian hands, particularly during the Holocaust.
"The Jewish people will remember the Pope, who bravely put an end to historic injustice by officially rejecting prejudices and accusations against Jews," Israel's President Moshe Katsav told Israel Radio.
In Syria, an arch-foe of Israel, prominent Islamic cleric Sheik Salah Keftaro said the world has lost a leader who advocated "dialogue and coexistence."
"Muslims and Christians alike have lost the pope and we are in a deep sadness for his loss," said Keftaro, head of the Abu Nour Islamic Foundation.