Outcry as Mugabe is invited to attend pope's beatification

  • @peterpopham

The Vatican yesterday said it had "nothing to hide" after it emerged that Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe, widely condemned over human rights abuses, would be among the dignitaries attending Sunday's beatification of Pope John Paul II.

The coffin containing the remains of the late pontiff was removed from the crypts underneath St Peter's yesterday in the run-up to the beatification. In a simple ceremony, the white marble tomb where the coffin has reposed since his funeral in April 2005 was opened in the presence of his former close associates, including his long-time Polish secretary, now Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the nuns who ran his household. The coffin will be placed in front of the main altar in the basilica, where it will remain on display, the Vatican announced, until everyone who wants to view it has done so.

It was revealed amid some embarrassment that the dignitaries expected to file past the casket on Sunday morning will include Mr Mugabe. His presence, explained a Vatican spokesman, was a "function" of the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Zimbabwe, "so there is nothing to hide".

Mr Mugabe is the subject of anEU-wide travel ban and the Vatican had to obtain special permission for him to be allowed to enter the pocket statelet. It will be at least the third time

that Mr Mugabe has taken advantage of the Vatican's and/or Italy's diplomatic largesse since John Paul's death.

He was present at the pope's funeral, where he contrived to shake the hand of Prince Charles and again at the World Food Summit in 2008. Zimbabwe's is one of 87 foreign delegations attending the beatification, which will place the only Polish pope in history one step away from sainthood.

Britain's royal family will be represented by the Duke of Gloucester. There was intense speculation about whether Tony Blair would attend, but as of last night there was no confirmation.

Up to a million Poles are expected to arrive in Rome by Sunday morning, adding their considerable weight to a temporary doubling of the city's population. Rome is already festooned with portraits of the most media-friendly pope in history and newsstands groan under the weight of souvenir books and knick-knacks.

The former pontiff's remains will be reinterred in St Peter's, close to Michelangelo's sculpture of Mary holding Christ's lifeless body, La Pieta. A notably belligerent 17th century pope, Innocent XI, will be displaced to make room for him.