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    Rome: Pilgrims flock for John Paul beatification

    Vatican City: Tens of thousands of people from around the world descended on Rome on Saturday for the beatification of Pope John Paul II, six years after his death.

    "It's almost as if he is here," said Enzo Arzellino, who travelled all night on a bus from southern Italy with his parish group to attend the beatification on Sunday.

    On Saturday, groups of pilgrims, many from the pope's native Poland, thronged St Peter's Square carrying their national flags and singing songs.

    "For the people he is already a saint. This is just a step towards official recognition from the church," Arzellino said.

    St Peter's Square, where the beatification takes place, was bedecked with portraits of the pope and 27 banners with photos reflecting an event in each year of his pontificate.

    Rome has been caught up in beatification fever. The city is festooned with posters of the pope on buses, taxis and hanging from lamp posts as it awaits one of the largest crowds since his 2005 funeral, when millions came.

    Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was at the pope's side for decades as his private secretary, said he was thrilled by the number of young people already in the square 24 hours before the beatification mass.

    "How marvellous. Look, just as they came on the day he died, this time they came to rejoice over his elevation. He is no longer in the tomb. The tomb has remained empty because he is here again," Dziwisz told Reuters in an interview in the square.

    Pope John Paul's coffin was exhumed on Friday from the crypts below St Peter's Basilica and will be placed in front of the main altar. After Sunday's beatification mass, it will remain there and the basilica will remain open until all visitors who want to view it have done so.

    It will then be moved to a new crypt under an altar in a side chapel near Michelangelo's statue of the Pieta. The marble slab that covered his first burial place will be sent to Poland.

    Several hundred thousand people are expected at the mass in St Peter's Square on Sunday when John Paul's successor Pope Benedict XVI will pronounce a Latin formula declaring one of the most popular popes in history a "blessed" of the Church.

    One who will be sitting in a place of honour is Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, a French nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease, the same ailment that afflicted the pope for the last 12 years of his life.

    The Vatican has deemed that Normand's otherwise inexplicable cure after she and her fellow nuns prayed to the dead pope was due to John Paul's intercession with God to perform a miracle, thus permitting the beatification to go ahead.

    Another miracle will have to be attributed to John Paul's intercession after the beatification in order for him to be declared a saint.

    Some 90 official delegations from around the world, including members of five European royal families and 16 heads of state, will attend the beatification.

    One is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been widely criticised for human rights abuses in his country. Mugabe is banned from travelling to the European Union, but the Vatican - a sovereign state - is not a member of the bloc.

    The leader of any country that has diplomatic relations with the Vatican can attend Vatican events.