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Prophecy points to Olive Pope

Rome, April 11 (Reuters): Maybe it describes the colour of his skin or place of birth.

But the next Pope will be the 'Olive' Pope, according to a 12th century prophecy that foresees just two remaining pontificates before the end of the world.

The often-cited ' and contested ' prediction is attributed to St Malachy, an Irish archbishop recognised by members of the church for his ability to read the future and who was canonised more than 800 years ago.

St Malachy was said to have had a vision during a trip to Rome around 1139 of the remaining 112 Popes before the Last Judgment, the time when the Bible says God separates the wicked from the righteous at the end of time.

The next Pope will be number 111 on that list and is described in the text as the 'Glory of the Olive'.

Like any good prophecy, there is plenty of room for interpretation: he could be 'olive' skinned, heralding from Latin America, Africa or the Mediterranean.

'It could even be a Pope of Jewish origin, since the olive branch is a biblical symbol for the people of Israel,' speculated Italy's La Stampa paper.

Malachy-watchers had long speculated the 'Olive' Pope would come from the Order of Saint Benedict, a branch of which is known as the Olivetans. But at the age of 93, the only Benedictine cardinal is now too old to become Pope. The cut-off age is 80.

The Malachy prophecy has been the subject of controversy for centuries. Critics say it is a forgery, possibly distributed as campaign propaganda in the late 16th century to favour a cardinal during the conclave.

But believers point to similarities with the pontiffs. Pope John Paul II, number 110, was described in the prophecy as 'de labore solis' ' or 'of the labour of the sun'.

He was born on May 18, 1920, the same day as a solar eclipse. The pontiff was buried on April 8, 2005 ' the same day as a partial eclipse, visible in the Americas.

Some take the prophecy relating to John Paul less literally and say it simply referred to the Polish Pope's birthplace in eastern Europe. The sun rises in the East. The 109th on the list, Pope John Paul I, was dubbed as 'de medietate lunae' or 'half moon' by the prophecy.

More pressing, perhaps, for doomsayers are the references to the last Pope on the list 'Petrus Romanus', or Peter the Roman, and makes mention of the destruction of 'the city of seven hills' ' Rome.

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