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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul's coffin was exhumed on Friday ahead of his beatification as tens of thousands of people began arriving in Rome for one of the biggest events since his funeral in 2005.
The Vatican said the coffin was removed from the crypts below St Peter's Basilica while top Vatican officials and some of the late pope's closest aides looked on and prayed.
Those present at the ceremony included Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, his personal secretary and right-hand man for decades, and the Polish nuns who ran the papal household for 27 years.
The wooden coffin will be placed in front of the main altar of St Peter's Basilica. After Sunday's beatification mass, it will remain in that spot 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.
The pope is being beatified on the day the Church celebrates the movable Feast of Divine Mercy, which this year happens to fall on May 1, the most important feast in the communist world.
The coincidence is ironic, given that many believe the pope played a key role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
As the Vatican prepares to move the late pontiff one step closer to sainthood this Sunday, Rome has been caught up with beatification fever.
The city is festooned with posters of the pope on buses and hanging from lamp posts as the city where he was bishop for 27 years awaits one of the largest crowds since his funeral in 2005, when millions came to pay tribute.
Large television towers are being erected along Via Della Conciliazione, the boulevard leading from the Tiber to the Vatican.
At least 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.
At least 16 heads of state and 87 official delegations from around the world will attend the beatification, the last step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic.
The Vatican has deemed that the otherwise inexplicable cure of a French nun, Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, who was suffering from Parkinson's disease, 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.
Beatification-related activities begin on Saturday night in Rome's Circus Maximus, the sprawling oval used by the ancient Romans for chariot races.
An all-night prayer vigil will be held in the oval, during which Normand, Dziwisz and Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's long-time spokesman, will describe their experiences with him.
John Paul's beatification has set a new speed record for modern times, taking place six years and one month after his death on April 2, 2005.
While the overwhelming number of Catholics welcome it, a minority are opposed, with some saying it happened too fast.
Liberals in the church say John Paul was too harsh with theological dissenters who wanted to help the poor, particularly in Latin America. Some say John Paul should be held ultimately responsible for the sexual abuse scandals because they occurred or came to light when he was in charge.
Ultra-Conservatives say he was too open toward other religions and that he allowed the liturgy to be "infected" by local cultures, such as African dancing, on his trips abroad.
Editing by Maria Golovnina