Vaclav Havel .
(photo credit: Reuters)
PRAGUE - International leaders bade farewell on Friday to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist dissident who led the peaceful "Velvet Revolution" and inspired human rights campaigners around the world.
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband former President Bill Clinton, joined leaders from France, Britain and many ex-communist countries for the funeral mass in the gothic St. Vitus cathedral at Prague Castle, the seat of Czech kings and presidents.
Havel, a dissident playwright who died on Sunday at 75 after a long respiratory illness, served five years in jail for his criticism of oppressive communist rule before rising to the presidency of what was then Czechoslovakia in late 1989.
He stepped down as Czech president in 2003 but remained a symbol of struggle for freedom and human rights, although his proclamation that "truth and love must win over lies and hatred" turned bitter to some Czechs amid economic hardship and corruption in the years after the end of totalitarian rule.
A thousand guests filled the monumental cathedral for the mass, while
thousands more followed the service on large screens outside.
"He fought against the communists, stuck to his opinion, made big
sacrifices," said 14-year old Anezka Chroustova, who brought a bunch of
Havel's widow, actress Dagmar Havlova, clad in a black veil, sat in the
front row at the mass celebrated by archbishop Dominik Duka, the head of
the Czech Catholic church. Havel's casket lay on the floor, covered by a
Sirens and church bells rang around the central European country at noon
in Havel's memory and many people stopped on the streets to observe a
minute of silence, some moved to tears. Some factories stopped work.
On Wednesday, over 10,000 mourners had marched through Prague's
cobblestoned medieval streets, led by his widow, to pay their respects.
Thousands of candles were burning at Prague's Wenceslas Square and
Narodni Trida, the main spots of the Velvet Revolution demonstrations.Pope pays tribute
"Remembering how courageously Mr Havel defended human rights at a time
when these were systematically denied to the people of your country, and
paying tribute to his visionary leadership...I give thanks to God for
the freedom that the people of the Czech Republic now enjoy," Pope
Benedict said in a letter read out at Friday's mass.
Havel's dissident friend Lech Walesa, the first post-communist
democratic president of Poland, was among the guests. Russia, which
Havel criticized for human rights abuses and democratic shortfalls as
recently as this month, was represented by rights ombudsman Vladimir
Bill Clinton's presence was testimony to his close relationship with
Havel, who took him to drink beer in a Prague pub and play saxophone in a
club when he visited in 1994.
Havel developed close ties with the United States and took the Czech Republic to NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
"Vaclav Havel was fully aware of human weakness but we will remember him
for his resolve not to accept it as a permanent state of being," said
Madeleine Albright, a Czech-born former US secretary of state under
Clinton and a friend of Havel.
The service ended with the Czech national anthem and 21 howitzer gun
salvos. The crowd outside the cathedral clapped as Havel's coffin was
taken away for a private family memorial.
Havel, whose dramas of the absurd were popular in the 1960s before he
was banned from public life after the Soviet invasion in 1968, had felt
most at home among artists, including the Rolling Stones who played in
Prague in 1990 just a few months after the revolution.
A rock concert and a festival of his plays was due to take place later
on Friday at the Lucerna Palace that the Havel family built in the early
20th century. Four thousand tickets to the event were snapped up in
The program includes a show by The Plastic People of the Universe, a
band whose persecution in the 1970s led Havel and others to form the
Charter 77 movement that became the main opposition platform.