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Pope sinks, world braces for the end

Vatican City, April 2 (Reuters): Pope John Paul is slipping in and out of consciousness, the Vatican said today as Roman Catholics around the world prepared for the death of the Pontiff who battled communism and defended church orthodoxy.

The Vatican said the Pope, whose long declining health took an abrupt turn for the worse this week, remained in very serious condition and since dawn today had been intermittently losing consciousness.

'This absolutely does not mean he is in a coma,' spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, adding that at times the Pope's 'eyes are open and he remains conscious, but at times he seems to be sleeping.'

Bracing for his passing, faithful around the world gathered in prayer for the charismatic Polish Pope who led the Catholic Church for 26 years ' the third-longest reign of a Pontiff ' and visited more countries than any predecessor. 'If God decides that the Pope should perish, I wish God will give us another Pope just like our beloved John Paul,' Gregoria Elabastina, a nun in the Philippines, said between sobs.

Several thousand people, some singing, dancing and clapping, gathered in St Peter's Square to be close to the Pope, who was lying in his bed in the papal apartment overlooking the square.

In a sign the Vatican was preparing for a funeral, workers dismantled a semi-permanent stage in St Peter's Square. For the funeral of the last Pope in 1978, that space was occupied by an altar. Rome, meanwhile, geared up for thousands of pilgrims.

'John Paul is now very close to God,' said Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, considered a possible successor. Citing the Pope's 'imminent and inevitable' death, Italy's main sports body cancelled all weekend events, including top division soccer matches to which Italians are addicted.

But some churchmen were less pessimistic. Cardinal Achille Silvestrini said he saw the Pope this morning and that 'he showed comprehension' and was calm.

'I don't think he is at the point of dying,' said Silvestrini, who said the Pope was breathing without oxygen.

Polish Father Konrad Hejmo, a close friend of the Pope's, said: 'Today the Holy Father is in better condition than yesterday ... I am more optimistic today than I was yesterday.'

Once an athlete, the Pope has had a series of health dramas, including a near-fatal shooting in 1981 by a Turkish gunman. He has suffered from Parkinson's disease in recent years and was twice rushed to hospital in February with breathing crises.

He failed to recover from throat surgery aimed at helping him breathe and on Thursday developed a high fever caused by a urinary infection. He told aides he did not want to return to hospital and received the holy sacrament reserved for the dying.

Yesterday, the Vatican said John Paul had suffered a urinary infection that triggered septic shock ' a life-threatening assault by bacteria on the bloodstream. His heart and kidneys then began failing and his blood pressure fell dangerously low.

The faithful in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas said special prayers for the Pope. From Burundi to the Philippines, Catholics credited him with helping to spread democracy. In Jerusalem, worshippers lit candles in the church built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified.

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