In 1986, he established the World Day of Prayer for Peace as he continued to work toward a resolution to the tensions in the Middle East. He met and corresponded with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and appealed for peace in Lebanon after the murder of President-elect Bechir Gemayel. In 2000, he went to Israel to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and pray for peace. His visit was the first official trip by a pope to the Jewish state.
In 1990, John Paul lobbied for peace in the Persian Gulf, writing letters to President George H.W. Bush and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq in an attempt to avert the Gulf War. After the allied coalition's airstrikes against Iraq in 1998, he expressed deep sorrow for the suffering of the Iraqi people.
He opposed economic sanctions against Cuba, Libya, Iran and Iraq, saying they hurt the people and were politically ineffective. During his tenure, he restored the Vatican's diplomatic relations with Poland, Albania, the Russian Federation, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Mexico, Jordan, South Africa, Israel (ending tensions that had persisted since 1948), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libya and Cuba.
Karol Joseph Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-TEE-wah) was born in Wadowice, Poland, on May 18, 1920. He lost his mother when he was 9, his only brother when he was 12, and his father when he was 21. Despite his love for athletics, young Wojtyla declared that he hoped to pursue the study of literature or acting.
He enrolled at Jagiellonian University in Krakow to study philosophy, and there joined an experimental theater group. After the start of World War II, Wojtyla continued with his studies and underground theater, while working as a stonecutter to avoid deportation or imprisonment. During the war, he was active in an underground Christian democratic group that helped Jews escape the Nazis.
After two near-fatal accidents, Wojtyla put his former ambitions aside to study for the priesthood, and was ordained on Nov. 1, 1946. Wojtyla taught social ethics at the Krakow Seminary, and in 1956 was appointed chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1967 he was consecrated cardinal, and 11 years later became the youngest pope in a century.
Although he was conservative on many social issues, particularly those involving the role of women in the church, John Paul was in many ways a leader for the modern age. In 1997, he introduced the Holy See Internet site, and also broadcast Mass in cyberspace for the first time. A compact disc of his rosary prayers made it on the charts in Europe; and "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," his book of meditations on topics ranging from the existence of God to the mistreatment of women, was an immediate best seller in 12 countries.
Seeing the young as an asset to the church, John Paul began the tradition of World Youth Day in 1985. The celebration continues every other year, drawing hundreds of thousands of young people from around the globe.
In December 2000, a Vatican-approved comic book starring the pope hit the newsstands, a small honor compared to the one from Time magazine six years earlier -- when it named him its "Man of the Year" in 1994.