As the mourners queue, Cardinals begin secret deliberations to choose a new Pope

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The Catholic Church's College of Cardinals met for a second session of discussions yesterday but has yet to decide when it will gather inside the Sistine Chapel to elect the successor to Pope John Paul II, who died on Saturday. Behind the scenes however, the secret deliberations over the vote are already in full swing.

The Catholic Church's College of Cardinals met for a second session of discussions yesterday but has yet to decide when it will gather inside the Sistine Chapel to elect the successor to Pope John Paul II, who died on Saturday. Behind the scenes however, the secret deliberations over the vote are already in full swing.

The electoral congress, called the Conclave - Latin for "with key" because, in the past, the cardinals were locked in until they reached a decision - must begin not less than 15 and not more than 20 days from a pope's death. The 117 cardinals under 80 years old who are required to attend the Conclave may vote up to four times a day until a successful candidate emerges. With most cardinals having already arrived in Rome, an informal pre-Conclave discussion is ironing out starting positions for the debate.

"They chat between ceremonies, before and after them, they send e-mails and talk on the phone," said one Vatican observer. "The Pope's death was not unexpected, they've been sharing their thoughts about the next pope for years."

The master of ceremonies for the event, Archbishop Piero Marini, told journalists yesterday that a peal of bells will be added to the white smoke that pours from the Vatican's chimney when a new pope has been elected. In 1978, there was confusion when the smoke issuing from the chimney appeared to be neither black nor white but grey.

Archbishop Marini said, "This time we plan to ring the bells to make the election of the pope clearer ... This way even journalists will know."

There is, so far, little agreement among observers on who is likely to win the election. "All these lists people draw up of cardinals likely to win mean nothing," said the veteran Vaticanista, who has been observing the body since the Second Vatican Council of 1962. "Some colleagues and I have drawn up a list of the five cardinals least likely to get elected. Now that was a good list. You could take that one to the bank."

But with the Pope's body now lying in state in St Peter's basilica, and with people waiting for up to 14 hours in queues to view it, criticism of John Paul II's legacy is growing increasingly uninhibited as observers thrash out what they do and do not want to see in his successor. "What they are going to try and find is someone who will be agreeable to all," said another Vaticanista. "They'll want the man who can mediate the best between these different factions. It's not like a race where the fastest man wins."

As Pope John Paul II's reign stretched on and on, the view began to emerge that it would be good to have a pope who would not reign for quite so long.

"If someone has a mandate, they accomplish everything in the first 10 years," he went on.

"Having someone for a really long time means that, at some point, everything gets frozen. On women priests, contraception and other issues, this pope just said no. And he came down heavily on priests working for human rights in Latin America. People said, how can something be good for Poland but bad somewhere else? But so many things just got blocked.

"They'll want to keep things moving now. Then there's the question of whether there should be a retirement age for popes. Bishops have to resign at 75, and cardinals are not allowed to vote for the pope once they are over 80. But the pope is allowed to go on forever, even though he's a bishop.

"But if you raised the issue, John Paul's inner circle took it as an attack on him. There's an urgency to deal with many things now."

A worker with a Catholic aid organisation here said, "For the last pope, the challenge was communism and relations with the Orthodox Church.

"For the next one it will be the 1.3 billion living below the poverty line. It's not a matter of a pope on the right or the left. But there is a call for a Church where everyone is welcome."

Turkish assassin is barred from funeral

Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who shot the Pope during a general audience in St Peter's Square in 1981, has been denied permission to leave prison to attend the funeral of the man he calls "his spiritual brother".

Agca's lawyer, Mustafa Demirbag, applied for a short-term compassionate release yesterday for his client under a Turkish law which grants 72 hours' leave to prisoners who have shown "good behaviour".

Mr Demirbag met his client in Kartal prison in Istanbul on Monday and reported his determination to attend the service. "I must be there. I must attend the funeral. If I can't go then someone from my family should go," he is quoted as saying.

But Mr Demirbag knew there was little chance Turkish authorities would allow his release. He told journalists last night the application had been denied. "Mehmet Ali will be very sad when he learns this."

The Pope spent months recovering after the assassination attempt, which he believed was averted by the intervention of the Virgin Mary. He visited his would-be murderer in prison two years after the attack and forgave him. Agca, 48, has since considered himself to be accompanying the Pope in a "divine plan", which he believes has "reached its conclusion". He is reported to be grieving deeply for the death of John Paul II.

"I have lost my spiritual brother. I share in the mourning of my Christian Catholic people," Agca wrote in an open letter made public yesterday.

Agca was extradited to Turkey in 2000 after almost 20 years behind bars in Italy. He is currently serving a 17-year sentence for earlier crimes, including the murder of a Turkish newspaper editor.

Elizabeth Davies

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