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Pope John Paul II: 1920 - 2005

In many tongues, pope championed religious freedoms

Published April 3, 2005

Pope John Paul II wasn't afraid to condemn ideologies he thought were dangerous.

He took on communism and totalitarianism. He spoke out against authoritarian rule in countries, often while visiting them.

He began with the Soviet Union's stranglehold on his native Poland and went on to champion increased freedoms in the Philippines, Cuba and Chile.

John Paul's common touch, combined with his gutsy outspokenness, made him a revered figure in parts of the developing worlds.

"Older Vietnamese can remember listening to his speeches criticizing communism on the radio," said the Rev. Pierre Pham Van Chinh of the Church of the Vietnamese Holy Martyrs in Largo. "He gave us hope."

In the Philippines, many remember the pope for criticizing former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Before John Paul visited in 1981, Marcos lifted martial law, which he had put in place the previous decade.

In 1986, when Marcos was forced from power, many credited the pope for helping to bring about the change.

"We reverted back to our democratic way of life" thanks to the pope's influence, said Roberto Ruelo, 66, the legal counsel for the Philippine Cultural Foundation in Tampa.

Many people around the world feel an emotional connection to the pope because he traveled so much, visiting those who could not afford to go to Rome. When leaders and politicians abandoned them, the pope was there, they said.

It didn't hurt that John Paul could speak eight languages.

"He conveyed a sense of belonging and care for people," Ruelo said.

John Paul struck a chord with his interest in the people of developing nations and the way he was willing to interact with them like none of his predecessors had done before, said James F. Strange, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

The pope's message resonated with more than just Catholics, Strange said.

"It shows that he had assumed the moral mantle in the eyes of many people," Strange said. "Even if they disagreed with Catholic teachings."

Strange also pointed to John Paul's willingness to speak out for increased religious and human rights. The pope would speak out even in places that were hostile to religion or the Roman Catholic faith, Strange said.

"It takes moral courage to stand in a hostile environment and speak what you believe to be right," Strange said. "He was vocal about it. People noticed that."

John Paul's critics say his influence on developing nations was not all good. His staunch opposition to modern forms of birth control helped increase birth and AIDS rates, they say.

But on the political level, where he challenged oppressive regimes, the pope shined.

In 1998, John Paul became the first pope to visit Cuba. Cuba's communist government, led by longtime dictator Fidel Castro, has long discouraged membership in the Roman Catholic Church.

Still, out of respect, Castro put away his regular drab olive military fatigues and put on a business suit to welcome him. The visit is credited with widening religious freedoms in Cuba.

Miriam de San Jorge, a Cuban exile who works in a West Tampa hairstyling salon, said the pope's visit helped restore religious liberty on the island. Before she left Havana in 1970, de San Jorge said she had to walk to a Baptist church with her Bible hidden under her clothes.

"I was afraid the police would drag me away to jail," said de San Jorge, 68.

When she returned in 2003, de San Jorge said she was amazed to see her old church overflowing with people and the sounds of hymns.

"He opened a lot of doors for us," she said.

Yosuani Rodriguez, a Cuban produce vendor in West Tampa, witnessed the pope's visit in 1998. People in his hometown outside Havana packed five buses to see the pope deliver a Mass at La Plaza de la Revolucion.

"It was a momentous occasion," said Rodriguez, 30. "In that moment, people ceased to be afraid."

Rodriguez said the pope's visit triggered the release of political prisoners.

"The pope's visit may not have brought lasting changes," said Rodriguez, who left Cuba in 2001. "But it gave the Cuban people faith, and that was perhaps the most beautiful thing he could do for us."

[Last modified April 3, 2005, 00:48:41]

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