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World: Chaos Grips Rome As Millions Pour In To Honor Pope

The late Pope John Paul II (file photo) To be sure, Rome has seen its share of invasions over the millennia. But despite its storied past, the Italian capital this week is undergoing a truly historic invasion. A vast security operation is underway as millions of pilgrims hoping for a final glimpse of Pope John Paul have poured into the Eternal City ahead of the Roman Catholic leader's funeral on Friday. They include 200 presidents, premiers, kings, queens, and other heads of state. But as RFE/RL reports, for some Rome residents, it's all just business as usual.

Prague, 7 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On any normal day, Rome is a crowded, chaotic city where getting around is never easy.

But it's never quite been this bad.

At least four million people from around the world have poured into Rome this week to pay homage to Pope John Paul, whose body is lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica ahead of his funeral tomorrow.

Jean-Pierre Darnis, a longtime resident of the Italian capital, said traffic and life in the district around the Vatican has been choked off.

"The people who live in Borgo Pio [the area around the Vatican] can't sleep anymore because there are hundreds of thousands of people lining up there," Darnis said. "I went there yesterday to wait in line to see the pope's body, but I gave up after two hours. My interest and my faith aren't strong enough to spend 12 hours in line all night and to have to take the next day off of work."
At least four million people from around the world have poured into Rome this week to pay homage to Pope John Paul, whose body is lying in state in St. Peter's Basilica

But others were not so willing to give up.

Citing an overflow of pilgrims, police late yesterday closed the line of mourners waiting to view the body of the pope, turning away thousands of people, including this young Italian woman.

"We spent the entire afternoon coming here on the train, and now they've closed it!" she said.

But by today, police relented and allowed thousands of Poles who had arrived overnight to join the closed line, filling the street with red-and-white Polish flags and the sound of Polish chat.

Andrzej Bembinsky of Warsaw was among the crowd.

"We could not not come here. My wife came from Paris and I came from Warsaw," Bembinsky said. "To me, the pope is the truth, and the truth is the most powerful thing in the world."

Other visitors lucky enough to see the pope included U.S. President George W. Bush. He joined his predecessors -- his father, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- in viewing the red-clad pontiff's body yesterday.

As crowds pour into the city center, some Rome natives have chosen to leave.

Francesco Brancoli, a retired journalist, lives just a few hundred meters from the wall that separates Vatican City from Rome. He spoke with RFE/RL from his villa in Tuscany.

"I live right next door to the pope, as it were, and the crowd was just immense -- despite decent organization, the crowd was just immense, just horrible," Brancoli said. "So I decided to hop in my car and flee to the countryside."

Some media have speculated that tomorrow's funeral could be the world's largest gathering ever of heads of state.

Among national leaders due to attend are President Mohammad Khatami of Iran and Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe. Although the European Union has slapped a travel ban on Mugabe for human rights abuse, it seems he will be allowed to come as he is officially visiting not Italy, but the Vatican, a separate state.

Italy has deployed antiaircraft missiles, a warship off the coast and thousands of security forces to protect the city. There are police, firefighters, and civil protection officials in all the city's main squares and streets.

"The whole system is controlled 24 hours a day from this central control office which co-ordinates the efforts of state police, Carabinieri and financial police, as well as various other components who are absolutely necessary to organize the movement of means and men in the territory of Rome, such as the city police, the transport and railways and the emergency services," said Marcello Fulvio, chief of Rome's police.

But despite all the commotion, long-time resident Darnis says Romans are flexible people used to having to improvise in chaotic situations. He says the city will require a major clean-up effort after the weekend, but that the chaos isn't all that different than what goes on during an Italian World Cup soccer match.

"The city will be pretty paralyzed during the funeral," Darnis said. "People will just be blocked. I think it's going to be like when there's a big football match on. It will be an atmosphere of people all over Italy sitting still behind their television sets. And it will last a few hours."

The funeral is due to start at 10:00 a.m. Prague and Vatican time tomorrow and last three to four hours.

Rome should get something of a reprieve starting this weekend. But not completely.

International media and pilgrims will remain focused on the city. On 18 April, cardinals will begin a conclave to pick the man who will inherit the throne of St. Peter.

For a few days at least, Rome is again what Italians call "Caput Mundi" -- the "capital of the world."