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World unites at Pope's funeral

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World Unites in Handshakes at Pope's Funeral

By Ralph Gowling

LONDON (Reuters) - World leaders -- some at political loggerheads or even officially at war -- paid their final respects to Pope John Paul on Friday, uniting by joining in the Roman Catholic Church's handshakes of peace.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav said he shook hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the Pope's Vatican funeral, but Syria later calledit a formality that did not mark any change in policy.

"I think it gave us a glimmer of hope that something canchange in the Middle East," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told CNN. Syria's state news agency quoted an official source as saying: "The protocol required that participants shook hands as a formality ... it had no political significance."

President Bush exchanged greetings with French PresidentJacques Chirac, a fierce critic of the Iraq war, as some of thegestures were captured by television pictures beamed liveacross the world.

Britain's Prince Charles shook hands with ZimbabweanPresident Robert Mugabe, so shunned by the European Union it has banned him from the bloc, and former Polish President Lech Walesa made peace with his successor after a 10-year feud.

The Pope has been hailed by many as a force for peace and the Church invites people at its masses to offer each other a sign of peace such as a handshake. Catholics also often exchange words like "Peace be with you."


"How can anyone say the Holy Father does not work miracles?" Walesa said after ending a decade of animosity with Aleksander Kwasniewski, a communist turned social democrat who beat the former Solidarity leader in his 1995 re-election bid.

"Yesterday (the handshake) would have been unthinkable,"said Walesa, a long-time friend of Polish-born John Paul. Hehas credited the Pope with being an inspiration behindSolidarity's drive to end communism in Poland in the 1980s.

For Prince Charles the handshake with Mugabe triggered embarrassment in EU heavyweight Britain, prompting the royal household to issue a statement.

"The Prince of Wales was caught by surprise and wasn't in a position to avoid shaking Mr Mugabe's hand," said a spokeswoman for the prince. Mugabe is a Roman Catholic.

Bush and Chirac, publicly committed in the past few monthsto improving relations since their fallout over the 2003U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, exchanged "friendly words," Chirac's office said.

Katsav's handshakes with Assad, whose country is formally at war with Israel, and Khatami were splashed as a "Historic encounter in Rome" by the Jewish state's largest-circulation daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

It was believed to be the first time an Israeli president had shaken hands with Syrian and Iranian leaders. It was unknown whether the handshakes were caught on film.

"I told him 'Good morning' and he shook my hand," Katsav,whose post is largely ceremonial, told Israel's Channel 2television of his encounter with Assad. The Israeli and Syrian delegations had been seated next to each other.

Iranian-born Katsav said he spoke in his native Farsi to Khatami about their common city of birth. Iran officially seeks Israel's destruction.

"The president of Iran extended his hand to me, I shook it and told him in Farsi, 'May peace be upon you'," said Katsav.

No immediate comment was available from Iran.

Katsav said he later shook Assad's hand a second timeduring the funeral. "The second time ... was his initiative --he extended his hand to me," Katsav said.

But Katsav said: "I don't think there is any political significance to this. We are cultural people and say hello nicely and shake hands."

Israeli and Syrian negotiators last held peace talks in 2000 that foundered over the future of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel has accused Iran of supporting anti-Israeli militants and has been a fierce critic of its nuclear program.

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