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Police turn back mourners as crowd tops 1 million

| Thursday, April 7, 2005

VATICAN CITY -- After electronic highway signs and cell phone text messages failed to stanch the flow of pilgrims, police stepped in Wednesday to turn back mourners hoping to join the 24-hour line to view the body of Pope John Paul II, on a day that brought almost 1 million people to the Vatican.

The crowd control problems developed hours after the College of Cardinals set April 18 as the start of its conclave in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor to John Paul, a papal election with new rules and new technological challenges.

Seeking to clear the basilica by this evening so the Vatican could prepare for John Paul's funeral the following day, police announced they were closing the line at 10 p.m. Text messages were sent over Italian cellular phone lines. Those at the back would wait 24 hours before entering the basilica.

"We're just hoping the order can be reversed," said Federica Bruni, a 20-year-old student who came from northern Italy and was one of the first to be told to go away last night.

It took more than an hour after the deadline to set up the barricades and establish the cutoff point.

"You tell these people!" said one Civil Defense officer in frustration as the time passed for the line to end. "How can we close?"

"It's possible there are 1 million people out there," said Luca Spoletini of the Civil Defense Department. "They are all concentrated outside St. Peter's. ... We are all working to ensure maximum tranquility."

At the United Nations, General Assembly members stood in silent tribute to the pope yesterday and diplomats offered condolences to his native Poland and the Holy See, which has observer status at the U.N.

The Vatican is a keeper of secrets without parallel, but there were questions yesterday about whether the deliberations in the conclave -- and the name of the new pope -- could be kept within the frescoed walls in an era of cell phones and now that the cardinals will be allowed to roam freely around the Vatican.

"They've assured us there are ways to block all communications and conversations," Chicago Cardinal Francis George said. "They're taking precautions to prevent outside interference. ... No cell phones, no laptops, nothing."

The severest of punishments -- including excommunication and "grave penalties" meted out by the pope himself -- await anyone who breaks the sacred oaths of secrecy.

John Paul set out the penalties in a 1996 document, giving cardinals who will choose his successor a set of detailed guidelines to ensure the centuries-old process of electing a pope is safe in the modern age.

In it, he called for a clean sweep by "trustworthy" technicians of the Sistine Chapel and adjoining rooms to prevent bugs and other audiovisual equipment from being installed. He banned telephones.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the cardinals would celebrate a morning Mass on April 18, then be sequestered in the Sistine Chapel in the early afternoon for their first ballot.

In past conclaves, cardinals were sequestered in the Apostolic Palace, crammed into tiny makeshift cubicles with limited toilet facilities and no running water.

In 1996, however, John Paul said the cardinals would instead be housed in a hotel he had built within the Vatican walls. Each cardinal now has a private room and bath.

It was originally believed they would move between the hotel and the Sistine Chapel under escort, but Archbishop Piero Marini, the papal master-of-ceremonies, disclosed Tuesday they were free to go about the Vatican between voting sessions.

According to church law, prelates are expected to hold at least one ballot on the first day of a conclave. Under revisions by John Paul, if no one gets the required two-thirds majority after about 12 days, cardinals may change the procedure and elect a pope by a simple majority.

The number of cardinal electors under age 80 and thus eligible to vote is 117, but only 116 will enter the conclave because Cardinal Jaime Sin of the Philippines is too ill to attend. Sin, now 76, had been one of only three cardinal electors who also took part in the 1978 conclave to elect John Paul.

John Paul's spiritual testament, read yesterday, was a 15-page document written in his native Polish over the course of his pontificate starting in 1979, a year after he was elected. It did not name the mystery cardinal he created in 2003, Navarro-Valls said, ending speculation that a last-minute cardinal might join in the conclave.

Navarro-Valls ruled out that John Paul's body would be brought to St. John Lateran Basilica, across Rome, before Friday's burial, as was done for Pope Pius XII in 1958.

The spokesman said that with such crowds already converging on Rome, the Vatican could not meet requests for a viewing at what is Rome's cathedral. Instead, John Paul will be buried immediately in the grotto under St. Peter's Basilica, he said.

Giant television screens will be set up at St. John Lateran so that crowds who gather there will be able to view the funeral proceedings, he said.

The crush of pilgrims on the road leading to the Vatican will rise sharply when an expected 2 million Poles arrive in Rome for the funeral.

Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi told reporters the scene was like a cloud, "but it is a cloud that is luminous and full of life."

Italian authorities readied anti-aircraft rocket launchers, just one of the security measures being taken to protect the scores of dignitaries converging on Rome for Friday's pomp-filled funeral in St. Peter's Square.

Italy was calling in extra police to the capital and planned to seal off much of the Eternal City on Friday to protect a VIP contingent that will also include French President Jacques Chirac, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the presidents of Syria and Iran, among other heads of state.

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