Persson attends Arafat funeral

Prime Minister Göran Persson is one of the few non-Muslim heads of government, and the only EU leader, to attend Yasser Arafat’s funeral in Cairo.

Persson led Sweden’s tributes to the Palestinian leader, who died in a Paris hospital on Thursday. Persson said that he felt “sadness” for the passing of a “great political leader”, reported Dagens Nyheter. He was less equivocal in his praise of Arafat than many of his counterparts in other countries, and credited Arafat with creating a national identity for the Palestinian people.

“I hope and believe that we will see a peaceful transition of power to a new Palestinian leadership,” he added.

While most other Western countries will be represented at the funeral by their foreign ministers, Persson has opted to attend the ceremony in person. This reflects Sweden’s longstanding close relationship with the Palestinian leadership.

Further tributes to Arafat came from former Swedish foreign minister, Sten Andersson. The Social Democrat politician was one of the few Western politicians to get close to Arafat, reported Aftonbladet.

Andersson said that he had become friends with Arafat over the years. “I was an honest friend to him,” he said. “We had many heated discussions about human rights, and in the end he developed a faith in Sweden.”

Arafat was “open-hearted, even about his private life,” added Andersson, although he admitted that the Palestinian leader could be temperamental.

Further tributes came from the Palestinian community in Sweden. Göteborgs Posten said that Palestinians in Gothenburg had gathered at the offices of a local group that campaigns for the rights of Palestinian refugees.

“Arafat was like a father for the Palestinian people – it will be hard to replace him,” said the group’s chairman Abdul Halim.

Others, however, had mixed feelings. Monzer al-Sabini, who also works for Palestinians’ ‘right to return’, said that while Arafat was a symbol for his cause, his death was a chance to reflect and to “start on a new democratic process.”

More strident criticism of Arafat came in Svenska Dagbladet. In a leader published on Wednesday, shortly before his death, the paper noted that Arafat was “sometimes praised as an apostle of peace – not least in Sweden,” but went on to criticise the Palestinian leader for “at first not wanting peace, and then not daring to choose peace when it was possible.”

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet, Göteborgs Posten