From Japan to the Atlantic, world leaders praised and fretted about the ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday - a remarkable outpouring for a man not long ago seen as a threat to the Middle East.
Pope Benedict XVI
said Thursday he was praying for peace in the Holy Land, according to news reports.
Benedict's comment was in response to a question about the situation in the Middle East, after Sharon suffered a massive stroke Wednesday evening that made his return to power unlikely and prompted widespread anxiety about the future of the peace process in the region.
"We pray for peace in the Holy Land, so that the Lord will grant them durable peace," Benedict was quoted as saying by the Apcom and ANSA news agencies. However, Benedict did not refer directly to Sharon.
Even the Arab world was relatively benign toward Sharon, with anxiety about the future overshadowing pockets of jubilation. In Europe, leaders showed unusual unity in their praise, reflecting a shift in the continent's attitude toward Sharon, driven in part by its own recent experiences with Islamic terrorism.
For all his bloodied, hard-line past, Sharon gained grudging respect recently by dismantling the Jewish settlements he once championed, and by allowing a European monitoring force on the Gaza-Egypt border. Sharon was in critical condition Thursday after a life-threatening stroke.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
called Sharon "a towering figure, not only in Israel
but in the whole of the region."
Speaking to reporters in Beirut
, Straw said Sharon's attempts to find a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had "earned him huge respect across the world."
Sweden's Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said the Swedish government was "depressed" upon hearing about Sharon's stroke. "Sharon is a very important person right now, not least in the ongoing process to find a peaceful solution to the (Middle East) conflict," she said.
This little resembles the acerbic criticism of Sharon when he was elected in 2001. His history as a hawkish general and his role in Israel's invasion of Lebanon
in 1982 led many to believe that when he became prime minister he would hinder, not broker, peace.
"When Sharon was elected, Europeans saw him as an impediment to the peace process," said Richard Whitman, an analyst with Chatham House, a London
"But since then there's been a grudging acceptance that he has made a contribution, even if it has not been in the manner that Europeans expected. He has pursued his own peace process," Chatham said by telephone.
In the Arab world, some Palestinian and Arab hard-liners rejoiced over Sharon's stroke - one even called it a gift from God. But Arab media were largely restrained, with Al-Arabiya
, the pan-Arab satellite channels, carrying extensive and mainly straightforward reporting.
Palestinian commentator Ghazi al-Saadi told Al-Arabiya that Sharon was "the first Israeli leader who stopped claiming Israel had a right to all of the Palestinians' land," a reference to Israel's recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip
"A live Sharon is better for the Palestinians now, despite all the crimes he has committed against us," he said.
Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi postponed his trip to Israel, Japan's Foreign Ministry said Thursday. Koizumi expressed concern about the effect of Sharon's stroke on the Middle East peace process.
"Peace in the Middle East has an impact on the whole world," Koizumi said.
In Europe, Sharon's stroke came at a time when EU-Israel relations were at last improving.
The latest boost came with November's deal to allow EU monitors along the Gaza-Egypt border, Europe's
first security role in the region despite years of lobbying. EU officials insisted Thursday that the program was not under threat despite Sharon's illness.
Europe's experience with Islamic terrorism in recent years has also slightly shifted European sentiments toward the Middle East. Train bombings in Madrid
in 2004 killed 191 people; suicide bombers killed 52 transit passengers in London last July.
"We are not at the point where we would use the measures Israel does, but we understand them better," said Francois Gere, president of the French Institute for Strategic Analysis.
French President Jacques Chirac
, German Chancellor Angela Merkel
and Russian President Vladimir Putin
sent Sharon wishes for a speedy recovery.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi
said, "This is a very painful event on a human level and an absolutely negative one on the political level." Speaking on a radio show, Berlusconi said Israel now "faces a difficult future in a moment that might have been historic."
Berlusconi has tried in recent years to portray Rome as Israel's best friend in Europe despite Italy's traditionally more pro-Palestinian bent.
Jewish communities in Rome and Paris were set to hold vigils for Sharon on Thursday evening.