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Pilgrims, Presidents Flock Into Rome, Causing Logistical Nightmare

  • Roger Wilkison

Rome is facing a logistical and security nightmare, as scores of the world's political and religious leaders, as well as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims continue to arrive in the city before Pope John Paul II's funeral, Friday. The city's authorities have closed off access to the queue of people lined up to get a last glimpse of the pope's body, disappointing many late arrivals.

Groups of pilgrims who arrived in Rome Wednesday night, after bus journeys from southern Italy and as far away as Poland were frustrated that they would not be able to pay their last respects to the late pontiff, whose body is lying in state in Saint Peter's Basilica.

The Vatican says more than two million people have already filed past the pope's bier and another 600,000 are expected to do so, by the time the viewing has ended, later Thursday.

Civil defense officials in Rome decided to shut off the queue of people filling Saint Peter's Square and its adjacent streets and avenues, late Wednesday night, so that those in line could pass through before the basilica is closed to prepare it for the pope's funeral.

Many pilgrims who arrived at the scene as authorities closed off the line, sobbed in frustration and pleaded with police to let them through the barriers. In some cases, the police proved flexible, allowing small groups to join the line. But most of the time, they followed their orders and waved the new arrivals away.

Matthias Villareal and Emilia Klepacka arrived from Brussels late Wednesday, and were among those turned away. But they say that what is important is being in Rome at this moment, whether or not they get to see the pope.

"I do regret not having been able to be here a little bit faster but I'm here and I'm with everybody. I'm just lucky," Matthias said.

"We feel close to the Holy Father now," Emilia added. " We feel that he is now in heaven and he is praying for us and he is closer to us than ever before. And, we will continue the legacy that he started."

Police now face the double task of controlling the crowds that are still streaming into Rome and protecting the more than one-hundred world leaders who have begun arriving in the city.

Police cars, sirens wailing, escorted President Bush, late Wednesday night, to the Vatican, where he knelt in prayer before the pope's body for more than three minutes. That is in sharp contrast to ordinary pilgrims, who are only allowed a few seconds to walk past the body, make the sign of the cross and, perhaps, take a photograph of the pontiff lying in state.

Italian officials are downplaying any risk of a terrorist attack, but they have laid on tight security measures, including closing down the airspace over the city until after the pope's funeral.

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