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John Paul II was just 58 when he made the first of five visits to Mexico, building a passionate adoration among many Mexican Catholics.

Excitement about the pope’s arrival began building in Guanajuato, a deeply conservative state in sun-baked central Mexico.

By midday, thousands lined the 20-mile (32 kilometer) route from the airport to school where the pope will stay in Leon, the state’s largest city. Many were students who had been given the school day off and encouraged to go. They wore matching white baseball caps and waved yellow Vatican flags at honking cars and cheering spectators who had staked out positions to see the Popemobile pass hours later.

Maria Jesus Caudillo, a stationery story owner in Leon, found a spot early with her four nieces and nephews.

John Paul came to Mexico but never to Leon and never this pope,” she said. “It’s a miracle that in all the country, he chose to come to Leon.”

Yet about 30 percent of the city’s 6,000 hotel rooms were still empty, said Fabiola Vera, president of the Association of Hotels and Motels of Leon. She said people may have been discouraged by rumors that there weren’t enough rooms.

The main campground in Leon, meant for tens of thousands of pilgrims, remained empty. The only evidence of preparations early Friday were about a dozen portable toilets, a single police patrol and a group of three men and a woman putting up a tent to sell T-shirts and photos of Benedict.

Church officials say as many as 300,000 people are expected for Sunday’s Mass and Carlos Aguiar, president of the Mexican Episcopal Conference, said he expected the faithful to begin arriving later Friday.

Benedict is visiting a church battling to overcome painful setbacks that include legalized abortion and gay marriage in the capital of the most populous Catholic country in the Spanish-speaking world.

Guanajuato’s constitution declares that life begins at conception and bars abortion with extremely limited exceptions. Seven women were jailed there in 2010 for the deaths of their newborns and later released. The women said they had miscarriages, not abortions.

Benedict’s church is encouraging more such laws across Mexico, and a measure before Congress would strip away many of the remaining restrictions on religion that were imposed during conflicts more than a century ago.

Church leaders also are trying to overcome a scandal over the most influential Mexican figure in the church.

The Rev. Marcial Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ order, which John Paul II praised as a model of rectitude. But a series of investigations forced the order to acknowledge in 2010 that Maciel had sexually abused seminarians and fathered three children. Church documents released in a book this week reveal the Vatican had been told of Maciel’s drug abuse and pederasty decades ago.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein, E. Eduardo Castillo and Dario Lopez-Mills in Leon, Mexico, and Frances D’Emilio in Rome.