VATICAN CITY, April 8, 2005
(STAR) By Preciosa Soliven  —  President Arroyo will pay her last respects this morning to Pope John Paul II before the Holy Father is laid to rest at 10 a.m. (Rome time) in funeral rites to be celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica here.

Mrs. Arroyo, accompanied by First Daughter Evangeline "Luli" Arroyo and her official delegation, arrived here on the eve of the burial rites for the late Pontiff.

The President was joined by five members of her official delegation, including Ambassador to the Vatican Leonila Vera, Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, Mrs. Gina de Venecia, former ambassador to the Holy See Howard Dee and Social Security System (SSS) chairman Thelmo Cunanan.

Mrs. Arroyo arrived here yesterday to a sea of humanity as fellow mourners, including members of royalty and world leaders, gathered to attend the interment of the Pope who died six days ago.

President Arroyo left at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday on a chartered Philippine Airlines Airbus Flight PR-001 from the Centennial Airport with an official delegation of six and a mixed group of government officials and Church leaders.

After a straight flight of about 14 hours from Manila, Mrs. Arroyo spent some private time with her daughter at the Cavallieri Hilton here in Rome.

Luli Arroyo then led the first batch of Philippine delegation members who were escorted by Vera to pay their last respects to the Pontiff.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye told The STAR they were able to avoid the long lines of mourners by passing through the side entrance of the Philippine Embassy at the Holy See, located near St. Peter’s Basilica. Still, it took 45 minutes for them to get a glimpse of the Pope’s body. Other mourners waited in line up to five hours for the privilege.

"We prayed and we were there for about ten minutes only," Bunye said.

The special PAL flight arrived at 7:30 a.m. at the Fumicino airport (around 1:30 p.m. Manila time) where Mrs. Arroyo and her official delegation were met by Ambassador to Italy Philippe Lhullier and his wife Vera.

Philippine Embassy vehicles, which had picked them up at the airport, weaved through the heavy traffic of cars and pilgrims heading to the Vatican.

Despite being escorted by Italian carabinieri (policemen) on motorcycles, it took almost an hour and a half to bring Mrs. Arroyo and her party to the Cavallieri Hilton where they were billeted for their overnight stay in Rome.

The hotel is located atop a hill overlooking the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica and about eight kilometers away from the Vatican where pilgrims said to number in the millions had pitched tents along the routes leading to Rome.

Members of the Filipino clergy, including Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales and Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, are staying at the Colegio Filipino in the Vatican, which serves as the official residence of priests and other bishops coming from the Philippines.

Mrs. Arroyo’s lone official activity yesterday was a luncheon reception hosted for her by Piere Ferdinando Casini, president of the House of Deputies of the Italian Parliament. He is Italy’s equivalent to Speaker Jose de Venecia.

The President last night joined the Filipino community in a special Mass celebrated for the memories of the late Holy Father.

Some controversy had surrounded Mrs. Arroyo’s choice of members in her official entourage. Cunanan’s inclusion was criticized by some, but he sought to mitigate the controversy, telling reporters it was the prerogative of the President to decide who joins her on official trips. Accompanying Cunanan to Rome is his wife, newspaper columnist Belinda Olivares-Cunanan, though she is not part of the official delegation.

"It is the prerogative of the President to select whomever she thinks can best represent the Filipino people and the Filipino nation in this hour of international, universal bereavement," he said before boarding the PAL flight, adding "as chairman of the SSS, I represent 27 million SSS members."

He stressed that the SSS was "in no way footing the bill" for the chartered trip to the Vatican.

Meanwhile, it was learned that PAL charged discounted rates for the presidential entourage. PAL president Jaime Bautista confirmed, "We only charged them at cost" for the special flight, though he declined to state the air fare rate, saying it was "confidential."

Other members of the delegation were Gina Perez-De Venecia, wife of Speaker Jose de Venecia; Archbishop of Davao Fernando Capalla, Bataan Bishop Soc Villegas, Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, Ambassador to Rome Leonida Vera, Ambassador Howard Dee, UNESCO Ambassador Preciosa Soliven, Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, and Government Media Affairs Secretary Cerge Remonde.

Another controversy arose when rival television networks accused Bunye of favoritism in selecting which TV stations would join Mrs. Arroyo’s trip.

Small news teams from two major networks, ABS-CBN and GMA-7, were allowed to join the flight at the last minute while ABC-5 was not allowed to send its own reporter. Both ABS-CBN and GMA-7 paid for their own expenses.

GMA network’s News and Public Affairs office confirmed that there were two seats made available for GMA-7 on the President’s chartered flight, "although we already have three teams in Rome for the Papal coverage."

Jose Javier, ABC-5 vice president for news and public affairs, said Bunye did not bother to inform their Malacañang reporter, Jovy Francisco, that slots were available on the chartered flight for the media.

Bunye, in a text message, said he would take full responsibility for his "judgment call" in selecting certain media representatives for the official trip. — With Rainier Allan Ronda, Paolo Romero

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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