VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope John Paul II, who helped topple communism in Europe and left a deeply conservative stamp on the church that he led for 26 years, died Saturday night in his Vatica n apartment, ending a long public struggle against debilitating illness. He was 84.
John Paul's passing set in motion centuries of tradition that mark the death of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, whom he led into the faith's third millennium.
Karol Joseph Wojtyla was a robust 58 when the last papal conclave stunned the world and elected the cardinal from Krakow, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
In his later years, John Paul was the picture of frailty. In addition to Parkinson's, he survived a 1981 assassination attempt and had hip and knee ailments. His anguished struggle with failing health became a symbol of aging.
A fierce enemy of communism, John Paul set off the sparks that helped bring down communism in Poland, from where a virtual revolution spread across the Soviet bloc. No less an authority than former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said much of the credit went to John Paul.
But his Polish roots also n ourished a doctrinal conservatism - opposition to contraception, abortion and women priests - that rankled liberal Catholics in the United States and western Europe.
A man who had lived under both the Nazis and the Soviets, he loathed totalitarianism, which he called "substitute religion." As pope, he helped foster Poland's Solidarity movement and bring down Communism. Once it was vanquished, he decried capitalist callousness.
While the pope championed better relations with Jews - Christianity's "older brothers," as he put it - the Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. He also met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and urged the Holy Land's warring neighbors to reconcile.
John Paul, the most-traveled pope in history, was intent on improving relations with Muslims. On a trip to Damascus, Syria, in May 2001, he became the first pope to step into a mosque.
The 264th pope also battled what he called a "culture of death" in modern society. I t made him a hero to those who saw him as their rock in a degenerating world, and a foe to those who felt he was holding back social enlightenment.
"The church cannot be an association of freethinkers," John Paul said.
However, a sex abuse scandal among clergy plunged his church into moral crisis. Critics accused the pope of not acting swiftly enough.
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press