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Crowds Gather for Pope's Funeral Friday

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Friday s funeral of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City is expected to be the largest gathering of both world powers and faithful members of the Catholic church in modern times.

The funeral is slated to start in St. Peter’s Square at 10 a.m., or 3 a.m. American East Coast time. Many U.S. TV networks will broadcast the three-hour ceremony live, while across Rome, 27 giant monitors will display the event.

On the V.I.P. invitation list, President George W. Bush leads the American contingent, which also includes his two predecessors – his father, George Bush, and Bill Clinton, who knelt before the Pope’s body on Wednesday. “The man knows how to build a crowd,” Clinton is said to have quipped.

The guest list also includes the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, the king and queen of Spain, patriarchs of other Christian churches and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – and President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, one of the countries the current President Bush considers to be part of the “axis of evil.”

Since the Pope s passing last Saturday, some 4 million pilgrims, many of them Poles like the late pontiff himself, have made pilgrimages to Rome, creating gridlock around Vatican City and forcing police to shut down the line of those wishing to pay last respects.

To accommodate the unprecedented crowd and to maintain security at the funeral, NATO has promised an AWACS spy plane to protect Roman air space during the ceremony, while the Italian military has stationed concealed Spada and Hawk surface-to-air missiles across the city, officials tell Reuters.

In addition, there is a warship patrolled off the coast, helicopters and warplanes on standby, and more than 6,500 security forces standing by.

After the funeral, cardinals of the Catholic Church under the age of 80 – there are 117 in all – will start a conclave on April 18 to pick the man who will be the next pope.