Pope John Paul II was due to arrive in Switzerland yesterday on his first foreign trip in eight months, with a youth rally and an open-air mass scheduled for the ailing pontiff during his 32-hour stay in Bern.
The 84-year-old pope's visit to the Swiss capital, the first since frail health curtailed his journeys abroad, was due to begin only a day after he admonished US President George W. Bush during a meeting in the Vatican.
The Roman Catholic church leader has showed renewed vigor following new therapy for Parkinson's Disease.
The Swiss population is more or less evenly divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. There were few outward signs of the pope's visit in the Swiss capital to match the enthusiastic welcome that John Paul received during his last six-day tour of the country 20 years ago.
A recent opinion poll in a weekly magazine, L'Hebdo, indicated that 75 percent of Swiss felt that John Paul should retire.
On top of that, a group of Swiss Roman Catholic theologians, priests and community leaders marked the pope's birthday last month with an open letter asking him to respect the retirement age of 75 set for bishops.
When he greets Pope John Paul, Swiss President Joseph Deiss is expected to announce that Switzerland will appoint an ambassador to the Vatican, effectively upgrading formal relations.
Although relations between the two states are good, the Swiss government has maintained a lower-grade representation because of objections from some Protestants who fear that Bern would be favoring one religion over another by having an ambassador to deal with the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
After being greeted by Deiss and other ministers at a military airfield, the pope will then travel to the old people's home run by Swiss nuns in Bern, where he will be staying during his visit.
Yesterday evening John Paul was due to attend a rally of about 12,000 young Catholics in Bern's ice hockey stadium.
Pope John Paul was also to celebrate an open-air mass for tens of thousands of worshippers in a field on the edge of the Swiss capital on this morning.
Before leaving the country, the pope was to meet former Swiss Guards, the group of Swiss military-trained Roman Catholics who traditionally form the Vatican's protection corps.
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