Pope buried in Rome before global audience

By Tony Barber in Rome

Financial Times

Published: April 9 2005

Monarchs, presidents, religious leaders and millions across the world paid their last respects on Friday to Pope John Paul II, who was buried in St Peter's Basilica after one of the largest funerals in history.

As choirs sang in Latin and a giant bell tolled across Vatican City, 12 pall-bearers took John Paul's plain cypress coffin, adorned with a cross and the letter M for Mary, to the crypt below St Peter's Basilica.

In St Peter's Square, the huge piazza where the Pope was wounded by a Turkish gunman in 1981, police estimated that 300,000 people crammed in.

But even these numbers paled into insignificance against the millions who watched the rites on large screens in Rome's largest piazzas, and the many millions more, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who followed the event on television. George W. Bush, the US president, joined dozens of other heads of state and government including Tony Blair, UK prime minister, French president Jacques Chirac and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to pay their last respects. It was the first time a US president has attended a papal funeral. The ceremony also provided an opportunity for dramatic, if brief, moments of diplomacy. Moshe Katsav, the Israeli president, shook hands with the leaders of his country's bitter enemies, Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Mohammad Khatami.

Syrian officials usually try hard to avoid public contact with Israelis. But yesterday's handshake with Mr Katsav comes as Syria faces unprecedented international isolation over its role in Lebanon and ahead of Monday's visit by Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, to Washington.

Britain's Prince Charles, meanwhile, was caught off guard and shook the hand of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has vilified the UK in his efforts to extend his 24-year rule.

Mr Mugabe defied an EU travel ban, imposed on him and his senior ministers for flouting democracy, to attend the funeral.

With exceptional security measures in place for the 200 world leaders who flew into Rome, airspace closed and the noisy, chaotic city emptied of traffic, the funeral passed off without disturbances. However, Italy scrambled F-16 jets to force down one aircraft near Rome, while police in Serbia-Montenegro stopped another on the ground. They acted on a tip-off by an unidentified foreign government that they could be carrying bombs.

The rites were conducted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's guardian of theological orthodoxy for 24 of John Paul's 26-year reign. He told mourners: "We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father's house, and that he sees and blesses us."

The Roman Catholic Church immediately entered nine days of official mourning, a period known as the “novemdiales”, which will be followed on April 18 by a conclave of cardinals who will elect the next Pope.

Each day up to next Saturday the Church will celebrate a mass in honour of John Paul, and the sermons delivered by cardinals or other clergymen at these liturgies will be closely analysed for clues as to how the red-hatted “princes of the Church” may cast their votes.

Some 117 cardinals are eligible to take part in the conclave, with Italy providing 20 of them, the largest single national group.

Additional reporting by Roula Khalaf in London.