Pope's body enters St. Peter's Basilica for viewing

VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul's body was today carried by pall bearers into St Peter's Basilica, passing through the huge doors of the church that had been his for more than a quarter of a century.

The procession of cardinals, bishops and dignitaries snaked its way slowly through the frescoed hallways of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, down marble stairways and into St Peter's. Square, which was packed with tens of thousands of faithful.

The body of the Pope will lie in state in St Peter's Basilica for public viewing until his funeral at 10am on Friday (8pm New Zealand time).

Before it entered the Basilica, the procession passed over the precise spot from where John Paul had presided over thousands of general audiences and Masses, including his first inaugural Mass as Pope on Oct. 22, 1978, six days after his election.

The crowds, who had queued up for hours to catch a final glimpse of the Pontiff, applauded when his body emerged into the square in a traditional sign of respect for the dead.

The Pope's body lay on a red velvet litter. It was carried by 12 ushers who had served him in the Vatican and was flanked by Swiss Guard in ceremonial uniform.

On the threshold of the Basilica, ushers who had been carrying the body feet first, turned it around for a minute so the Pope faced the crowds in the piazza for a last time.

Then, the body was carried up the great Basilica's long, main aisle, toward the main altar.

The body was preceded by monks carrying lit candles to the sounding of the chanting of the "Lord have mercy," sung in Latin, and a ritual litany asking all the Saints of the Church to pray for the deceased.

Police estimated more than 100,000 people were lined up on the broad boulevard leading to the basilica waiting to file past the body of the Pontiff.

Rome is bracing itself for the arrival of at least two million people, including 200 heads of state and government, for the lying-in-state and the funeral.

The Vatican said last night that the Pope would be buried in the crypt of St Peter's.

Chief spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said John Paul's Requiem Mass would be celebrated by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Italy has mobilised thousands of security forces to protect visiting dignitaries, expected to include United States President George W. Bush.

Italian authorities will have 6430 police on duty in Rome, 5000 of whom will be charged with public security and guarding sensitive buildings.

The rest will protect the monarchs, heads of state and government and ministers expected.

The Italian news agency Ansa, citing intelligence sources, said there were fears of demonstrations and maybe even attacks during the funeral. Surveillance of airports and train stations was to be stepped up across Italy, involving up to 15,000 police and soldiers.

The airspace over Rome is to be closed on Friday, with fighter jets, helicopters and a Nato Awacs plane enforcing the ban, it said.

Arrangements are being made for the arrival of 166 special trains and hundreds of coaches. Big television and video screens are expected to be set up around St Peter's Square and in other areas.

Officials said they were expecting up to a million mourners to file past the Pope's body. Many are expected to be young and without planned accommodation, prompting the authorities to provide facilities for at least 20,000 people in half a dozen makeshift campsites on the outskirts of the city.

- REUTERS

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