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Belgians line up to honour queen who ‘united nation’

Thousands of Belgians braved the cold Wednesday to pay tribute to former queen Fabiola as the 86-year-old widow of king Baudouin lay in state before a funeral that will draw royals from around the globe.

Mourners in thick coats and hats lined up in the winter sun outside the grand setting of the palace to pay their last respects to Spanish-born Fabiola, who died on Friday after a period of ill health.

“There was a feeling of reverence, of people overcome by silence, feeling that she was still there,” Paul Vanhout, a Flemish-speaker, told AFP after viewing the queen’s body at the Royal Palace in Brussels.

Belgium declared a week of national mourning following the death of Fabiola, queen consort from 1960 to 1993 to king Baudouin, the monarch who oversaw Belgium’s hugely controversial withdrawal from its colony in the Congo.

Her body lay in an open, white coffin lined with silk, on a table draped with purple cloth in one of the Royal Palace’s imposing state rooms for the public homage on Wednesday.

Four candles stood at the corners of the table, which was decorated with wreaths and pictures of Fabiola and Baudouin.

She was dressed in white too, the colour of “hope” that the devout Catholic had memorably chosen for Baudouin’s funeral in 1993.

– ‘United our nation’ –

The first to pay their respects on Wednesday at the palace were Prime Minister Charles Michel and other government officials including Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, bowing their heads before her coffin.

Her death has created rare unity in a country that is increasingly divided between the richer Flemish-speaking north and the poorer French-speaking south.

“As a Belgian citizen, it is an honour to come to pay our final respects to this queen who united our nation for all these years,” said Christian, a 46-year-old mourner who did not want to give his surname.

“Belgium is a little kingdom with two communities. It is thanks to the royal family that it has stayed together.”

Fabiola’s body was moved to the palace on Tuesday from the chapel of Laeken Castle in the north of the capital where Belgium’s royal family said their goodbyes privately.

King Philippe — Fabiola’s nephew — and his wife Mathilde came along with former king Albert II — Baudouin’s brother — and his wife Paola.

The funeral will be held Friday morning at the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in central Brussels and is expected to draw royals from across Europe and as far afield as Japan and Thailand.

– ‘Cared for the poor’ –

The mood was sombre and respectful at the Royal Palace on Wednesday.

“I admired her because she was a rounded person who always showed her Catholic faith,” said Maria Alonso, a Spanish EU official, praising her “deep union” with the late king.

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 King 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.

Fabiola sparked uproar 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.

Belgians seemed to have forgiven her on Wednesday.

“She made our king happy, she made us happy by really caring for the poor,” said Mary Rosseeuw, 52, wearing a cap in the Belgian colours of black, yellow and red.