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Extraordinary security in place for papal funeral

GovernmentArtExecutive BranchGeorge W. BushDefenseNational Security

VATICAN CITY -- With Rome looking more like a city preparing for attack than for the funeral of a pontiff whose tenure was marked by pleas for peace, cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church chose April 18 as the date to begin their secret deliberations to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II.

Extraordinary security measures were in place in preparation for the pope's funeral tomorrow morning. Millions of pilgrims and hundreds of international dignitaries -- presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens -- were arriving in the largest influx of visitors in the city's history.

President Bush arrived last night and went directly to St. Peter's Basilica to view the pope's body. With him were his wife, Laura; his father, former President George Bush; and former President Bill Clinton.

AWACS surveillance planes from NATO were flying into position over the city, joining helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets, as an Italian naval destroyer positioned itself in the Mediterranean Sea.

Overwhelmed by the number of people approaching the Vatican, Italian officials refused last night to let any more mourners join the line to view the pope's body, which has been lying in state inside St. Peter's Basilica since Monday.

Authorities said perhaps 1 million people were waiting in line when it was closed at 10 p.m. So many people were in line that officials split the crowd into halves -- one channeled on the side streets outside the Vatican walls, the other lined the banks of the Tiber River.

Those at the end were prepared to wait more than 24 hours to view the body of the pontiff, who died Saturday of septic shock and heart failure.

"We will wait however long it takes," said Kathe Galic, 26, of Zagreb, Croatia, one of hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived in Rome over the past several days. "For me, this is personal because I've loved this pope, and it's international, because of what this pope has done for humanity."

Shortly after the line was closed, President Bush arrived at the basilica with his wife, the two former presidents and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bush will be the first sitting U.S. president to attend a pope's funeral.

The Americans approached a railing before the pope, kneeled and bowed their heads as a female choir sang softly in the background. They left after about three minutes.

The lone line into the basilica was halted before the president entered, and his motorcade made a mess of streets already backed up with cars and pedestrians. Frustrated drivers honked their horns at being held in gridlock by police for more than 30 minutes.

Former President Bush told reporters traveling with the delegation aboard Air Force One that he was vice president when he first met Pope John Paul. Though he and the pontiff disagreed sharply on the Persian Gulf War, with Pope John Paul sending him a cable opposing the invasion of Kuwait, the elder Bush said he wished that he had had time to discuss with the pope the notion of a "just war," which the pope had supported.

Clinton, talking separately with reporters on the plane, said the pope had demonstrated support for NATO actions to end genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo.

He said he recognized that Pope John Paul "may have had a mixed legacy," but he called him a man with a great feel for human dignity. And, Clinton said, noting the enormous numbers of people the pope would consistently draw, "The man knows how to build a crowd."

Officials estimated that 600,000 people arrived in Rome on Tuesday alone, and they were expecting even larger numbers yesterday and today.

The government arranged for separate text messages to be sent over cell phones to locals and visitors. They asked Romans to use public transportation, and pilgrims were informed in several languages of shelters set up around the city for those who could not find -- or afford -- hotel rooms.

At the Vatican, papal spokesman Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the cardinals decided on April 18 as the date to begin their conclave at the same meeting in which they were read the contents of the pontiff's will.

The pope's will is more of a religious document than a legal one and is to be published today after it is translated into numerous languages from the pope's native Polish.

The conclave will continue until a new pope is chosen. None of the 117 members of the College of Cardinals who are eligible to vote will be permitted any contact with the outside world, under threat of excommunication.

White smoke -- for the first time accompanied by the pealing of bells -- will signal a new pope has been chosen.

Navarro-Valls told a news conference yesterday that so many people wanted to see the pontiff's body that the cardinals briefly considered requests that it be carried through the streets of Rome. That idea was rejected, he said, because of logistical concerns.

Vatican, Roman and Italian authorities have so far managed the throngs impressively. They have set up tents on the city's outskirts, converted buildings into shelters and have been running extra trains, subway cars and buses to get people around the city.

Yesterday, they announced that from midnight today until 6 p.m. tomorrow, no private cars will be permitted on the streets of Rome, a city of 2.5 million people.

Authorities in Rome said they expect the number of pilgrims to exceed the city's population, with perhaps as many as 4 million visitors.

"Everything is functioning well," said Rome's chief of police, Achille Serra, adding that security forces and medical personnel deployed around the city were "operating with commendable commitment with the support of the composure and the civic-mindedness of the pilgrims."

The huge number of pilgrims has not been the only challenge. More than 100 countries are sending dignitaries to the funeral, creating a security challenge that has had to be answered with unprecedented swiftness.

Dignitaries include United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac.

Also attending -- in what is expected to be the largest collection of world leaders ever to assemble on St. Peter's Square -- will be Presidents Mohammad Khatami of Iran and Bashar Assad of Syria, whose governments appear on the U.S. State Department's list of countries that support terrorism.

President Bush was to stay at the U.S. ambassador's residence, the Villa Taverna.

With security concerns so obvious, the Italian army has doubled the number of Hawk missile batteries around Rome, and frogmen with mine-sweeping equipment were scouring the Tiber River yesterday.

Italy's civil aviation authority has already restricted airspace above the Vatican and plans to expand that over the whole of Rome except for a limited number of commercial and military flights.

Other flights are being diverted to airports outside of Rome, and passengers will then transfer to buses and trains.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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