Heads of state and government from around the world gathered in Prague’s St Vitus Cathedral on Friday to attend the state funeral of the late Czech ex-president Václav Havel. The funeral mass served by Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka started at noon with a minute of silence which was also observed throughout the country. The Czech national anthem was played and 21 gun salutes were fired to conclude the ceremony which lasted for over an hour. Some 40 countries had sent representatives to the funeral, among them French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German President Christian Wulff, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and others.
Twenty seven charter flights landed at Prague Airport on Friday morning carrying heads of state and other officials and guests who arrived in the city for the state funeral of Václav Havel. The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her husband, former US President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrived in Prague at ten am followed by the Polish delegation including former President Lech Walesa, and later the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the French actor Alain Delon, Mr Havel’s friend of many years. The Prague Ruzyně airport also saw the arrival of the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and the British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister John Major.
Officials and friends paid tribute to the deceased president in their speeches following the mass. In a sermon, Archbishop Dominik Duka said Václav Havel was a person able to raise hope among Czechs and thus unite them. In his speech, Czech President Václav Klaus said that although many things came to an end with the departure of Václav Havel, his message that freedom was worth sacrifices would live on. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg vowed to strive for truth and love the way Mr Havel had done. The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who is of Czech descent and was a close friend of Mr. Havel’s, spoke in her native Czech. She said for Mr Havel conscience was like a muscle which needed to be worked and exercised in the face of adversity. A condolence letter from Pope Benedict XVI was read out before the mass by the former Apostolic Nuncio to the Czech Republic Cardinal Giovanni Coppa. In his letter the Pope paid tribute to Mr. Havel’s visionary leadership after the fall of the communist regime.
The family and friends of the deceased ex-president attended a private ceremony at Prague’s Strašnice crematorium on Friday afternoon. The remains of the late Czech leader will be laid to rest in the family tomb at the nearby Vinohrady cemetery in Prague which is the final resting place of Václav Havel’s first wife Olga and the late president’s parents.
At noon on Friday bells tolled and sirens were sounded across the Czech Republic in memory of the departed president and people observed a minute of silence in his honour. In many towns and cities public transport came to a halt and people gathered in historically significant places and on town squares to light a candle and pay the late president a final tribute.
Crowds of people gathered around the Prague Castle complex on Friday morning to watch the live television broadcast from St. Vitus Cathedral on large screens. An estimated 35,000 people queued for hours during the past couple of days to pay their last respects to the late statesman whose coffin lay in state in Prague Castle’s Vladislav Hall. Some ten thousand also joined the funeral procession through Prague on Wednesday morning.
The Czech Republic’s former federal partner Slovakia is also observing a day of mourning on Friday. Slovakia’s President Ivan Gašparovič and Prime Minister Iveta Radičová, along with former President Rudolf Schuster and ex-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, attended the funeral ceremony in Prague. Flags are flying at half mast in Slovakia and a special mass will be held in St. Martin’s cathedral in the capital Bratislava on Friday evening in honour of the last president of Czechoslovakia.
The Burmese opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has expressed deep sadness at the death of Václav Havel and thanked him for the long-lasting support he had provided to her in her fight against the military regime in her country. Ms Suu Kyi’s message was related by the Burma Center in Prague. In a statement the centre said that Mr Havel had been a long-term supporter of Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement in Burma and that using his influence he had helped to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Burma in Europe and the whole world.
A public memorial concert for Václav Havel at Prague’s Lucerna Palace, organized by his brother Ivan will mark the end of the three-day period of mourning observed in the Czech Republic. The rock group The Plastic People of the Universe, which was closely associated with Václav Havel, will be playing along with other groups of the dissident music scene, Garage, Hudba Praha and the Velvet Underground Revival. The organizers have also promised to show clips from documentary films about the former president and play tributes from friends and celebrities. The memorial concert will be shown on a big screen on Wenceslas Square and live on Czech TV.
According to a poll carried out by the SC&C agency, nine out of ten Czechs regard Václav Havel’s terms in office positively. Twenty-three percent of those polled said Mr. Havel had been a good president; twelve percent described him as excellent. Ten percent hold a negative view of his presidency. The poll suggests thirty-six percent of Czechs believe that without Mr. Havel the Czech Republic would have never joined NATO. Almost 70 percent of those surveyed said they believed the first Czech President should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.