Pilgrims gather for beatification of John Paul II

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe also landed in Rome on Saturday.

Vatican City: Thousands of pilgrims swarmed into central Rome on a drizzly on Saturday, amid tight security measures on the eve of a ceremony for late pope John Paul II`s beatification, a critical step towards sainthood.

"I couldn`t miss this, I had to be a part of such a historic moment. We`ve only just arrived but the atmosphere`s great, it`s really exciting," said Patricia Wocial, 48, who had come from Britain with her young daughters.

The weekend of prayer, which experts say could help the Vatican burnish an image badly tarnished by paedophile priest scandals, will kick off later on Saturday with a vigil in the ancient Roman arena Circus Maximus.

Some 500,000 pilgrims are expected for the beatification, which will confer the status of "blessed" on the pope, who survived an assassination attempt and helped fight Communist rule during his nearly 27 years in office.

John Paul became pope in 1978 -- the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries. After 104 foreign trips and a pontificate that gave new strength to the Catholic Church, he died in 2005 following years of ill health.

The late pope`s coffin has been brought out of its resting place in a crypt under Saint Peter`s basilica, and a phial of John Paul`s blood, drawn from him during his illness, has been prepared as a relic for veneration.

At least 100,000 people are expected to attend the vigil starting at 1800 GMT on Saturday to hear those who were close to John Paul II speak, including his former personal secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.

While some pilgrims will then head off to bed before Sunday`s beatification mass starting at 0800 GMT, others will take advantage of several churches in central Rome which are staying open all night to pray to the late pope.

"We`re planning to camp out at the vigil until midnight, then go from church to church to pray, before heading to the Vatican around 4:00 am (0200 GMT) to soak up the atmosphere and get the best seats possible," Wocial said.

Peddlers could be seen hawking tacky souvenirs including watches with the pope`s face and baseball hats and T-shirts reading "I Love JPII".

Scout groups could be seen in Saint Peter`s on Saturday waving yellow-and-white Vatican flags, while other pilgrims sang religious songs.

The Vatican fast-tracked the beatification period after mourners at John Paul`s funeral clamoured for him to be made a saint, drowning out critics who accused him of having ignored Church ills such as corruption and paedophilia.

One of the Vatican`s fiercest critics, German theologian Hans Kung, said in an interview with La Repubblica daily that his reign was "authoritarian" adding: "He doesn`t deserve to be presented to the faithful as an example."

After Sunday`s beatification mass, which will be led by Pope Benedict in front of Saint Peter`s and shown on big screens in the surrounding area, pilgrims will be able to file past John Paul II`s coffin in the basilica.

Among the attendees at the mass will be Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski -- part of a large Polish delegation for the late Karol Wojtyla.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a liberation hero who has been widely condemned for human rights abuses, also landed in Rome on Saturday under a special exemption from a European Union travel ban to attend the ceremony.

Another miracle is needed before John Paul II can be declared a saint.

Portuguese cardinal Jose Saraiva, a former head of the Vatican`s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said the second miracle could come soon.

"There were so many people who loved this pope on Earth that there should be a miracle soon even if it`s not really predictable," he told reporters.

Bureau Report