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Hot tea warms up masses for Pope

Brno — Pilgrims started gathering in the chilly early hours of Sunday to see Pope Benedict XVI in a field in the Czech city of Brno.

Huge cheers went up from an estimated 120,000 people when the sight of the white Popemobile flashed up on giant screens and the crowd waved white-and-gold Vatican flags and large Czech, Slovak, Austrian and Polish banners.

The influx begun in the chilly cold as crowds made their way on foot and in special buses along eerily empty highways, closed for security purposes.

Even before sunrise, groups of faithful started filling the large field near Brno-Turany airport for the mass which was the highlight of the pope’s three day visit to the Czech Republic.

Youngsters in traditional folk costumes mingled with robed priests and families with prams, warming their hands on cups of tea or nibbling on cake and biscuits in the morning chill.

Some brought blankets to sit on the ground, others had fold-out chairs. Many had Vatican flags.

"We came here at 4:00am so we could be in the first row and as close to the Holy Father as possible," said Gabriela Ovciakova, 50, who was part of a group of 38 pilgrims from two villages in Slovakia’s High Tatras region.

"I came even though I had a terrible toothache. For us believers, meeting the Pope is encouraging, a joy. It’s everything," she added.

A pristine white stage was put up for Benedict XVI and as the sun rose so too did the temperatures. Nineteen people among the multitudes required treatment, mainly having fainted due to thirst after hours under the baking sun, ambulance services said.

One policeman was also hospitalised after he fell off his horse.

But nothing detracted from the prestige of the day.

"The arrival of the Pope here in Brno is really a great celebration for us," said Lenka Polachova, 17, wearing a traditional costume that she said was only used for great occasions.

"It’s just perfect because the Czech Republic is very atheist but when I see all these people, I’m happy," said Pavel Bernatek, 18, from the eastern Czech town of Zlin.

Some 10,000 people were expected from neighbouring Poland and Slovakia, and one bishop travelled from Bangladesh to take part in the ceremony, according to the Brno Bishopric.

Alena Seywerth, from Sankt Andrae in eastern Austria, had already seen Benedict XVI twice: in his birthplace of Marktl am Inn in Germany and in Mariazell on his 2007 visit to Austria.

"You can never see the Pope too often," she smiled.

"It’s for me a very special occasion, a privilege for me to be in this holy mess," added Patricia Opasy, a Nigerian who works in the Czech Republic and wore an African dress for the occasion.

The mass was held on a huge field the size of 25 football pitches and just next to the airport’s runways.

As the Czech Republic’s second largest city and the capital of its most Catholic region, Brno was a key stage on the Pope’s visit, on which he called for a renewal of faith among the Czech people.