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Czech Republic Bids Farewell To Vaclav Havel


State Funeral For Vaclav Havel Held At Prague Castle
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World leaders and Czech dignitaries bid farewell to former President Vaclav Havel, who died on December 18 at age 75, at a funeral service in St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, C

The Czech Republic and world leaders have bid an emotional farewell to former President Vaclav Havel at a state funeral for the hero of the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

The official goodbye for Havel, who died on December 18 aged 75 after a long illness, began at noon with a minute's silence punctuated with the sound of sirens and the ringing of church bells..

Foreign dignitaries including former U.S. President Bill Clinton joined Czech officials and leading cultural figures at the funeral in St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle, where the former leader had been lying in state during three days of official mourning.

Speakers paid tribute to the man who led the peaceful revolution that toppled Soviet-backed communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia and went on to become its president.

In his eulogy, Archbishop of Prague Dominik Duka recalled his time in prison with Havel under Communism, and how they would play chess together. "I'm grateful to you for those times in prison back then, and for my freedom here and now," Duka said.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, in his remarks, said that although much had departed along with Havel, much would live on, too.

"What stays with us is [Havel's] idea that freedom is a universal principle and if it is taken away from anyone, anywhere, then our freedom comes under threat too," Klaus said.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive for Vaclav Havel's funeral service in Prague.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive for Vaclav Havel's funeral service in Prague.
"What stays with us is the idea that the word has enormous weight, that it can both kill and heal, both hurt and help, and that it can change the world."

And former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke of an extraordinary friend she said she would miss terribly.

"He perceived conscience as a human organ which must be regularly nourished and strengthened by exposing it to the elements. He treasured liberty not just as an end in itself but as a means, so that in the end we can ensure that truth will prevail," Albright said.

"Few were more Czech than Vaclav Havel but his keen wit, kindness, wisdom and the depth of his thoughts spoke to all."

Attending the funeral were some 40 delegations from abroad, including 15 presidents -- among them, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili.

Other guests included Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, and a clutch of notable former Polish leaders, including former President Lech Walesa.

Aside from Albright, the United States was represented chiefly by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton, who was in the White House during much of Havel's presidency, and famously played saxophone for Havel during a visit to the Czech capital.

Among the European nations who did not send delegations are Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Belarus -- whose authoritarian president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was a frequent target of Havel's criticism.

Catholic priests walk in line to attend the funeral ceremony at St. Vitus Cathedral.
Catholic priests walk in line to attend the funeral ceremony at St. Vitus Cathedral.
Russia -- notably silent on Havel's death amid the tributes that flowed in from around the world -- was represented by ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who attended on his own initiative.

'We'll Not See his Like Again'

Among the mourners were figures from Czech cultural life, including the singer Karel Gott, who spoke to RFE/RL as he arrived.

"I came to bid farewell to a personality who gained world recognition like few other Czechs," Gott said, adding that among Havel's qualities was a gift for "making predictions, even though they weren't always positive or what people wanted to hear."

Outside, in a nearby courtyard and a square by the castle, ordinary citizens stood to watch the funeral ceremony on giant screens.

"I'm terribly sorry that he has died. It's a great tragedy for me and for the whole Czech nation," said Jaroslav Suchy, a Czech Roma who came to pay his respects. "He was a fighter for human rights, he also pushed for the rights of Roma, supporting us as a Roma minority in the Czech Republic, for which I'm very grateful and feel deep respect for him. I will never forget that until the day I die, wherever I am, in the United States or Canada or anywhere else. I'll always remember him."

Veronika, from the Czech town of Sumperk, told reporters that Havel meant a lot to her and hoped his achievements did not fade with his death.

"I hope that our leaders and those people who can influence the rest of us will remember his legacy and that he'll remain with us and once in a while we'll get a glimpse of what he believed in and what he wanted to pass on to us," she said.

Jakub, from the Orlik mountains in the northeast Czech Republic, believes that thanks to Havel and his revolution he was able to lead a completely different, freer life compared to the one his parents had.

"He was unique, and I think there are none like him left in our republic and that we'll not see his like again," he said.

A girl lights candles in front of Prague Castle to bid farewell to former President Vaclav Havel during a funeral ceremony on December 23.
A girl lights candles in front of Prague Castle to bid farewell to former President Vaclav Havel during a funeral ceremony on December 23.
After a private ceremony today for family and friends at a Prague crematorium, Havel's ashes are expected to be placed in the family tomb some time after Christmas.

The ceremonies cap a three-day period of mourning for Havel during which thousands of people have paid their respects by filing past his coffin, signing books of condolences, and placing candles and flowers at the castle and other significant spots in Prague.

Absurdist Dissident President

Havel, an absurdist playwright-turned-political-dissident, became Czechoslovakia's first postcommunist president after leading the peaceful 1989 revolution.

He became Czech president after the Czechs and Slovaks split in 1993, leaving office in 2003.

Havel, his health undermined by spells in prison under communism, had surgery for lung cancer in 1996, and received years of treatment for respiratory disease.

A serious mind, he was also known for his whimsical sense of humor -- he placed a large red heart atop the castle and, early on, liked to ride around its corridors on a scooter -- and love of rock music and avant-garde theater.

So the events will have a fitting end -- an eclectic cultural evening of rock music, plays, and films at Prague's Lucerna venue.

with agency reports and contributions from RFE/RL's Kristyna Dzmuranova
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