PEOPLE of all faiths across the region are mourning the passing of Pope John Paul II.

Thousands of worshippers gathered at cathedrals and churches across the North-East and North Yorkshire to pay their respects at a series of Masses, and plans are being made for a requiem service next weekend at St Mary's Cathedral, in Newcastle.

The Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Kevin Dunn, said: "The Catholic community, and indeed the world, has lost a great pope who has had such an influence on the 20th Century.

"He was a champion of peace, of justice and of reconciliation. His influence and his presence will be greatly missed.

"I had the privilege of meeting him in the late 1980s and more recently last year.

"On that occasion I met a frail, ill, old man, but a man who was filled with faith, determined to live out his mission until God called him."

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Middlesbrough, the Right Reverend John Crowley, unusually led last night's 5pm Mass at St Mary's Cathedral, Coulby Newham, and led prayers for the Pope's soul.

There are plans for an ecumenical service, with denominations in attendance, at the cathedral, in ten days' time.

Bishop John told The Northern Echo that John Paul had been a "pilgrim pope".

"He has travelled not only the world but a much longer inward journey. The centre of his life was to discover in every way possible the person of Jesus Christ.

"It is absolutely fundamental he saw Jesus Christ as the centre of human existence.

"That was why the millennium was so important to him - 2,000 years since the birth of Christ. He saw Jesus Christ as the centre of human history.

"He believed in Jesus Christ. He has longed to see him face to face. Now he is already enjoying the tremendous happiness of that."

He said the Pope had an astounding rapport with young people and respect for humanity.

"He had a respect for life, particularly for life among those who found themselves marginalised.

"He had a concern for social justice, for those who picked up the crumbs from the rich man's table in the Third World."

Likewise, Bishop John said, the Pope never saw "war as any solution to our human situation".

The Right Reverend Robert Ladds, Church of England Bishop of Whitby, said: "Pope John Paul has been in my prayers throughout his recent illness and I am very saddened to learn of his death.

"Our Christian friends in the Roman Catholic church are much in my thoughts and prayers at this time, and I pray especially for Bishop John, his colleagues and people in the Diocese of Middlesbrough.

"Pope John Paul II has been an inspiring and amazing church leader of our time. He has contributed an incalculable good to a wide range of world events and situations and to the life of the Church, both within the Roman Catholic Communion and ecumenically.

"He has borne his increasingly disabling illness with great dignity and courage, and has continued to make major theological, moral and ethical contributions to the work of the Church."

The bishop said the Pope had given firm Christian leadership and to the end of his pontificate he remained a strong and respected church leader "within the complex times in which we live".

He added: "In an audience with the Pope three years ago, I found him gently gracious and focused. His inspiration, guidance and ministry, under God, were clear and obvious.

"His dedication to his vocation and calling has been, and will remain, an inspiration to the Roman Catholic communion and beyond."

His colleague, the Right Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, said: "We give thanks for his courageous example and leadership, for the way he was willing to stand for truth and for the important part he played in the breakdown of animosity between East and West.

"Prayers, I know, have been offered in Anglican churches throughout the diocese today - prayers of thanks for the life and witness of Pope John Paul II and prayers for the Roman Catholic church.

"Today, I have written to express my sympathy and prayers to the bishops of Leeds and Middlesbrough Roman Catholic dioceses, with whom we have very warm relations.

"Pope John Paul II touched the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He encouraged Christian unity, both through his visits here and in welcoming Anglican visitors to Rome."

David Simon, president of the Hebrew Congregation, said the Jewish community had a high regard for Pope John Paul.

He said: "Living in Poland, he was aware of the trouble there.

"The Jewish people before the war had difficulties. We were led to believe as a young priest he did oppose the Nazi persecutions in Poland, and a few years ago he actually apologised concerning the policy of the Church during the war. That was a magnificent gesture.

"He was a great man, a great communicator and conciliator. It's important for the faiths to work together. We represent a lot of cultures but believe in the one God."

Mr Simon added: "We do recognise he was a great man and a moral man and did what he could.

"He led a caring life and cared a great deal for many people. He has not spared himself."

Hindu Shamal Biswas, a businessman and Middlesbrough councillor, said: "Our heartfelt condolences go out to the Christian community all over the world. The Pope was a person who tried to bring peace to all the world.

"It was wonderful of him when he went to the Lebanon and Israel."

Abdul Rasool, a respected member of the Muslim community, said: "We share the sadness with our Christian brothers, because he was a leader and a good man.

"He was just, he was objective. He did not take one side at the expense of the other. We respected the Pope and we liked him."

Father Ged Lavender, of the Holy Family Church in Cockerton, Darlington, said yesterday's congregation had included Pope John Paul II in its prayers.

He said: "The feeling is one of relief for him as a sick man, sadness because his era is over, and gratitude because he has been a great world influence.

"We all recognise him as a man who has been a church leader, but also someone who has confronted presidents, dictators and prime ministers on human rights.

"He has shown us how to live and how to die."

Father Lavender said the town's priests were looking to hold a mass for the whole town to coincide with the Pope's funeral.

There are between 1,600 and 1,800 Catholics who attend Mass in Darlington.