Millions of pilgrims from around the world are traveling to Rome to pay their final respects to John Paul II. But the city is buckling under pressure and wants the devoted to stay home and watch the funeral on TV.
Police are pleading with pilgrims to stay out of the city center
An unceasing swell of humanity surged around the Vatican for the past few days, desperate to pay tribute to Pope John Paul II as authorities struggled to cope with the suffocating crush. An estimated 1 million people have lined up to file past the pope's body as it lies in state in St Peter's Basilica.
The crowds are posing a logistical and security nightmare ahead of Friday's funeral, when at least 2 million mourners are set to join leaders from more than 100 nations in a requiem mass. The pontiff will be buried in the crypt of St. Peter's immediately after the mass, which begins at 10:00 am (0800 GMT).
In desperation, officials urged Romans to open their doors to the pilgrims coming in from all corners of the world to pay their last respects to a leader who touched their hearts.
For some here, it is a religious experience, for others a priceless moment in history or a simple chance to say farewell.
Despite the discomfort, the crush, the hunger, "the pope is calling us, and it's the last time that it will be possible to see him before he becomes a saint," said Marco Barraco, a 20-year-old from Naples. "He was more famous than a rock star, because he united religions."
With pilgrims reporting waiting times of 12 hours or more, Guido Bertolaso, the special commissioner overseeing Rome's preparations who was appointed Sunday, appealed
to newcomers to stay outside the city.
"Rome can't take any more," he said.
To honor "a good man"
Despite announcements that the giant queues leading to Saint Peter's Square were sealed off Wednesday evening, police let some pilgrims squeeze into the crowd as late as Thursday morning.
"We are representing our families, our co-workers and our friends who have to work," said Bartosz Bzosua, a 30-year-old telecoms manager from the Polish port city of Gdansk who traveled with 18 others for 23 hours to reach Rome.
As police moved to block the roads leading to the Vatican, several hundred pilgrims from the pope's home town of Wadowice, in Poland, waved their national flag and protested.
"Shame on Italy," cried Antonio Fabri, the Italian tour operator who had accompanied them from Poland. Protests seemed to have worked, and many more were allowed to
join in the lines in the middle of the night.
"Tomorrow will be worse"
Working round the clock, civil protection officers and first-aid workers handed out water bottles or blankets, doctors and nurses manned mobile medical centers and volunteers shepherded the vast surge of mourners. Often, the line would break into hymns or religious folks songs, or clap at images of the pope being beamed up on a giant screen.
"I've never seen this in Rome before in my years as a first-aid worker. And tomorrow it'll be even worse," said Maurizio Santoni, who has worked 20 years as a civil protection volunteer.
More than 2,000 people were treated by emergency workers on Wednesday alone, some 675 during the hottest hours from midday to 4:00 p.m. (1000 to 1400 GMT), the Corriere della Serra reported. Three people suffered heart attacks.
Watch it on TV, please
Attracting commoners and kings
Kings and queens, presidents, prime ministers and religious leaders around the world are descending on Rome for Friday's funeral.
Around 10,000 security personnel are being deployed and city officials are considering whether to impose a total traffic ban in Rome, already wracked by gridlock, crammed buses and growing mounds of litter.
US President George W. Bush, who clashed with the pope over the US-led war on Iraq, will be attending with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his immediate predecessors Bill Clinton and George Bush senior.
Security measures faced their first test late Wednesday with the Bush's arrival. Helicopters clattered overhead and police cars, sirens wailing, raced through the streets as Bush made his way straight to St Peter's, where he knelt in prayer for more than three minutes before the pope's body. Ordinary pilgrims are only allowed to walk past the body, with just enough time to make the sign of the cross and take a picture.
Although the pope condemned the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and rejected his moral claim to wage a just war, Bush has described him as "a great world leader."
Other funeral mourners include UN chief Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and presidents Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines, Jacques Chirac of France, Gerhard Schröder of Germany, Moshe Katsav of Israel and Mohammad Khatami of Iran, who paid tribute to the pope for building dialogue between Islam and Christianity.
The funeral will be beamed live across the world, with television networks from the Americas and Europe to the Middle East and Asia planning extensive coverage to a potential audience of hundreds of millions.