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Alice RITCHIE, Clément MELKI

Pope Francis to lead ex-pontiff Benedict's funeral

Benedict XVI died on Saturday aged 95, bringing an end to an unprecedented situation of having two 'men in white' living in the Vatican. ©AFP

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis will preside Thursday over the funeral of his predecessor Benedict XVI at the Vatican, an unprecedented event in modern times expected to draw tens of thousands of people.

Almost a decade after Benedict became the first pontiff in six centuries to resign, his successor will deliver the homily in the vast St Peter's Square before his body is laid in the papal tombs beneath St Peter's Basilica.

The German emeritus pope was no longer a head of state but world leaders including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will attend the funeral, alongside European royals and more than 4,000 cardinals, priests and bishops, according to the Vatican.

Queues of people, including many priests and nuns, formed before dawn in thick fog to enter the square, across which thousands of chairs have been laid out.

"Benedict is a bit like my father, so I had to pay homage to learn his faith," said Cristina Grisanti, a 59-year-old from Milan who arrived at 5:30 am.

She hailed the former pope's "purity, his candour, his mildness".

Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, died on Saturday aged 95, bringing an end to an unprecedented situation of having two "men in white" -- he and Francis -- living in the Vatican.

An estimated 195,000 people have already paid their respects during three days of lying in state at the basilica, the Vatican said.

On Wednesday evening, it was transferred into a cypress coffin for the funeral, which begins at 9:30 am (0830 GMT) and which officials expect will draw 100,000 people.

Benedict will then be interred in a tomb in the crypt beneath the basilica, where John Paul II's body lay before it was moved for his beatification in 2011.He was made a saint in 2014.

Portugal has declared a national day of mourning on Thursday, while in Italy, flags will be flown at half-mast on public buildings. 

In Germany, church bells will ring out at 11:00 am in memory of the first German pope in 1,000 years.

Two popes

The thousands who queued this week to see Benedict's body included a mix of Catholics and curious tourists.

"Despite what some people think, for me personally he was a father, in faith and also a model of service, humility and the search for the truth," said one pilgrim, wine producer Marco Felini.

Benedict was a brilliant theologian but a divisive figure who alienated many Catholics with his staunch defence of conservative doctrine on issues such as abortion.

His eight years as head of the worldwide Catholic Church was also marked by crises, from in-fighting within the Vatican to the global scandal of clerical sex abuse and its cover-up. 

When he quit, Benedict said he longer had the "strength of mind and body" necessary for the task, retiring to a quiet life in a monastery in the Vatican gardens.

He and Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, were said to get on well, but Benedict's later interventions meant he stayed a standard-bearer for conservative Catholics who did not like his successor's more liberal stance.

Francis -- who praised the "noble, kind" Benedict after his death at the monastery -- now has the unusual experience of presiding over his funeral.

The last time a pope presided over the funeral of his predecessor was in 1802, when Pius VII led the ceremony for Pius VI -- but the circumstances were very different.

Pius VI died in 1799 in exile, a prisoner of France, and was buried in Valence. His successor had his remains exhumed and brought back to Italy, before he was treated to a papal funeral at St Peter's.

Security operation

Around 1,000 police will provide security at the funeral, bolstered by numerous civilians from Italy's civil protection service, while more than 1,000 journalists are accredited.

The only official delegations are from Germany and Italy.Other dignitaries, including Belgian and Spanish royals, the presidents of Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Hungary, Slovenia and Togo, and the premiers of the Czech Republic, Gabon and Slovakia among others are attending in a personal capacity.

The service will follow traditional papal funerals, with a few changes to prayers and readings to reflect Benedict's status as emeritus pope.

Before being laid in the crypt, his cypress coffin will be placed first inside a zinc coffin, then a wooden case.

As is traditional, coins and medals minted during his papacy and a written text describing his pontificate, sealed in a metal cylinder, will be placed alongside his body.

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