Vatican guest list for John Paul II mass stirs controversy

Royalty and Presidents attended a Vatican ceremony for John Paul II.

Last Updated: May 01, 2011, 22:05 PM IST

Vatican City: Royalty and Presidents attended a Vatican ceremony for John Paul II on Sunday, including controversial Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and EU leaders who came under fire for taking part.

Mugabe, a practising Catholic, flew into Rome on Saturday with his wife Grace under a special exemption from a European Union travel ban imposed against him in 2002 for multiple human rights abuses under his rule.

Italy has been criticised by rights activists for letting the 87-year old leader transit through Rome to the Holy See. The Zimbabwean leader previously stirred controversy when he attended John Paul II`s funeral in 2005.

Rights activists and liberals also condemned the presence of Hungary`s right-wing prime minister Vicktor Orban, criticised for a new Constitution which includes references to Christianity and traditional family values.

Eighty-seven official delegations in total attended the ceremony.

Seven Prime Ministers and 16 heads of state looked on as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass, including President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland at the head of a large delegation from John Paul II`s native country.

Several European Union delegates were present, including EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, the Polish president of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek, and the head of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy.

Brussels brushed off criticism that political delegates should not be attending a religious service, saying they were there to pay homage to Karol Wojtyla`s momentous role in European history.

Some quibbled over the front-row presence of Italy`s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, currently embroiled in a sex scandal which prompted the Church this year to call on Italy`s leaders to renounce playboy lives and act responsibly.

Socialist critics in France also condemned Prime Minster Francois Fillon`s attendance — along with the foreign and interior ministers — as "shocking”, in light of their role as representatives of "a lay Republic".

John Paul II`s efforts to open dialogue with Israel were acknowledged by the presence of Yossi Peled, an Israeli government minister.

The late pope visited in 2005 in a historic move to heal wounds and Israel and the Holy See established diplomatic relations during his reign.

There were also representatives of several European states with secretive banking systems — a bit like the Vatican itself. The royal families of Liechtenstein and Luxembourg were represented, as was Andorra.

Latin American officials included the Presidents of Mexico and Honduras, while Brazil sent its vice-president and Argentina the president of the senate.

Four heads of state were in attendance from the Balkans — from Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro — and Croatia sent its head of government. From Africa, the Presidents of Cameroon, Togo and Congo turned up.

In a marked change from the previous US administration, Barack Obama only sent his ambassador to the Holy See. John Paul II`s funeral had been attended by George W Bush in person, as well as his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Representatives from five royal families attended including King Albert II of Belgium and Prince Felipe of Asturias, the heir to the Spanish throne.

Apart from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Lebanon — which was represented by President Michel Sleiman`s wife — delegates from Arab nations were not present.

Bureau Report