Czechs, World Leaders Bid Farewell to Vaclav Havel

Posted December 23rd, 2011 at 10:30 am (UTC-5)
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World leaders and the people of the Czech Republic have paid their final respects to former president Vaclav Havel at a state funeral in Prague, ending a week of honoring the dissident playwright and anti-communist icon.

The 75-year old former Czech leader died in his sleep of respiratory problems on Sunday.

Bells and sirens rang out during a moment of silence in memory of the country's first democratically elected president.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were among the world leaders who attended the funeral mass for Mr. Havel at the gothic St. Vitus Cathedral. Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Czech-born former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright also paid tribute.

In a message read at Friday's mass, Pope Benedict praised Mr. Havel, recalling “how courageously he defended human rights at a time when they were systematically denied.”

Since Monday, tens of thousands of Czechs have remembered their former president, filing past his casket inside a church in central Prague.

Mr. Havel took office in 1989, after leading what has come to be known as the “Velvet Revolution” that ended four decades of communist rule. He oversaw Czechoslovakia's transition to a free-market economy and democracy, as well as its peaceful 1993 split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Slovakia has declared Friday a national day of mourning in his honor.

Mr. Havel has been applauded by several European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who described him as a “great European” who fought for freedom on the continent.

Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992, and leader of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.