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Belgian queen Fabiola’s funeral draws world royalty

Global royalty from as far afield as Japan and Thailand attended the windswept funeral Friday of Belgium’s former queen Fabiola, widow of the popular King Baudoin, following her death last week aged 86.

Japanese Empress Michiko, Thai Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and Spain’s former king Juan Carlos, were among those who joined Belgium’s royal family at the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula in central Brussels.

Spanish-born Fabiola’s death has prompted a week of national mourning in Belgium, where the devout Catholic was seen as a unifying force in a country deeply divided between Flemish- and French-speaking communities.

“I came to pay tribute to a women I felt like I had always known because she was very close to the people. And because the royalty is important for Belgium’s unity,” mourner Christian Hanneuse, 61, told AFP outside the cathedral.

A day of solemn pageantry began with Fabiola’s coffin, draped in the black, red and yellow Belgian flag, being taken from the Royal Palace where it has lain in state since Thursday.

It was followed by King Philippe, Fabiola’s nephew, Queen Mathilde and their four children including Elisabeth, the 13-year-old heir to the throne.

In strong winds and driving rain, soldiers on horseback accompanied the hearse as it drove to the cathedral a few hundred metres away.

Around 1,000 people attended the funeral ceremony including European royals from the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and also from Morocco and Kuwait.

Britain, whose Queen Elizabeth II is one of the world’s longest serving monarchs, was however represented by its ambassador to Belgium.

– Historic day –

“There are some long-standing commitments preventing the presence of members of the royal family at the funeral,” a Buckingham Palace spokeswoman told AFP.

Fabiola was queen consort from 1960 to 1993 to Baudouin, the monarch who oversaw Belgium’s hugely controversial withdrawal from the Congo.

Fabiola, who was born Dona Fabiola de Mora y Aragon on June 11, 1928 in Madrid into an aristocratic Spanish family, was the fifth queen of the Belgians from her marriage in 1960 to Baudouin until his death in 1993.

She was best remembered for bringing a much-needed spark to Baudouin, the “lonely king”. They had no children.

Weakened by illness, she had not been seen in public since July 2013.

Her last years were troubled by a row that erupted in 2012 with the creation of a private foundation that was widely perceived as a way to avoid paying Belgium’s 70-percent inheritance tax.

She later dissolved the charitable vehicle and her annual income from the state was reduced from 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million) to around 900,000 euros.

But all that was forgotten by the mourners on Friday.

“It’s a historic day for the country,” said student Victoria Schiettecate, 18. “I liked the fact that she was not some kind of ornament, but an independent personality.”

Joellembumba Mbeka, a 51-year-old healthcare worker of Belgian-Congolese origin, was moved by the funeral ceremony.

“Fabiola was a very open women,” she said. “If you had a problem all you had to do was write to the queen without putting her address, just ‘Queen Fabiola’, and she would send help. She helped send the social services to me when I needed it.

“A page has turned for Belgium with her passing.”