| Cuban President Fidel Castro signs a condolence book in Havana. (AFP)
London, April 5: The politics of electing of the next Pope moved into bizarre territory yesterday with rumours sweeping Rome of a conservative plot to secure the papacy.
In a conspiracy theory worthy of a Dan Brown novel, liberals suggested that Pope John Paul II had died a day earlier than was officially declared but the news was withheld to give the conservatives an advantage.
According to the rumours, said to have come from sources in the Italian government and believed by senior cardinals, the Pope actually died on Friday.
The theory goes that conservatives close to the Pope decided that if they had an extra day they could mobilise many more sympathetic Roman Catholics from around the world to converge on Rome for the Pope's funeral.
The event would then become one of the biggest mass rallies in Catholic history and increase the momentum in favour of the Pope being elevated to sainthood in record time. In this heady atmosphere, the speculation goes, the conservative plotters could then ensure the election of another doctrinally conservative figure in the mould of John Paul II.
The rumour may sound far fetched but the fact that it is circulating among ' and is believed by ' informed liberal Vatican-watchers was an indication of the febrile mood possessing Rome after the death of the most influential Pope of modern times.
'They managed all this in the Pope's last hours to mobilise the Polish people and the conservative and charismatic movements, like Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation and the Neo Catechuminates, for the purpose of creating a huge turnout for the funeral,' said one distinguished academic.
'This will provide momentum for calls for the canonisation of the Pope and create the atmosphere that will help the conservatives secure the succession.'
A swelling tide of faithful flowed past Pope John Paul's body today in an outpouring of affection to repay the Polish Pontiff who reached out to millions during his 26-year papacy.
As hundreds of thousands of ordinary people queued for hours to pay homage to the third-longest reigning Pope, the Roman Catholic cardinals temporarily running the church met to discuss plans for Friday's funeral.
The crowds stretched as far as the eye could see, streaming up the broad boulevard that leads to St Peter's Square and into the vast basilica, where John Paul's crimson-robed body lay in state, as visible and popular in death as he had been in life.
The cardinals decided that the vaulted basilica should stay open until Thursday night, when the Pope's body would be removed from the bier and laid in a plain cypress wood coffin in readiness for Friday's funeral. The rites will last three hours and will draw together kings, presidents and prime ministers, briefly united in mourning for the world's best known religious leader.
Up to 2 million faithful are expected for the service in an unprecedented salute for a man who helped bring down the Iron Curtain, stamped a uncompromising orthodoxy on his own faith and travelled the world to spread his message.
Amidst the roar of praise for John Paul, some dissenting voices stood out, accusing the Pope of destroying democracy in the Church and alienating many with his rigid moral values.
'The Polish Pope's internal policies were devastating,' Roman Catholicism's leading rebel theologian Hans Kueng said.