The mysterious and controversial Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, went on public display Saturday for the first time in a decade.Some two million people are expected to view one of the most revered relics in Christendom -- and among the most disputed -- over the next six weeks in this northern Italian city.

The city that is home to the Fiat auto giant has completed extensive preparations to handle the onslaught of visitors, especially regarding security and crowd control.A large area around Turin cathedral has been cordoned off and some 4,000 volunteers were pressed into service.

Special parking areas have been designated for coaches bringing pilgrims eager for their chance to spend a few minutes before the relic, framed by red drapery and backlit to provide the best possible view.

The Shroud of Turin, which was painstakingly restored in 2002, measures 4.4 by 1.1 metres (14.3 by 3.7 feet) and is said to have been imprinted with an image of Christ's body, notably his face.

It was discovered in the French city of Troyes, southeast of Paris, in the mid-14th century.

The cloth became an overnight international sensation in 1898 after amateur photographer Secondo Pia obtained a negative image with far more striking features than those of the natural, sepia-coloured positive.

No one has come up with a scientific explanation for the image, and no one has managed to replicate it.

A section missing from the upper right-hand corner of the fabric was used for radiocarbon dating analysis in 1988, when samples were sent to four different labs.

The analysis determined that the fibres in the cloth date from the Middle Ages, sometime between 1260 and 1390, but those findings have in turn been challenged.

Normally visitors to the cathedral can only view a lifesize reproduction of the relic, which last went on public display in 2000.

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"I'm a scientist, so I have my doubts," the Croatian chemistry student told AFP. "I hope once I see it I'll believe it, I hope it strikes me."

Andrea Francesco Morbini, 25, who works at a snack bar near the cathedral, said: "Lots of people have their doubts, but I am sure it is real."

Mina Nicholosi, who was handing out leaflets advertising a nearby pizzeria, chose her words carefully, saying: "It's a great opportunity for raising awareness, to deepen our faith, despite the doubts."

In an allusion to the paedophile priest scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church, she added: "At this point in history, when as everyone knows there are problems hurting the Church (the event) will provide a chance for everyone to take part in a great exchange, a great synergy."

Turin Archbishop Severino Poletto, for his part, took on the subject more directly.

"The Church has always gone through painful times in the course of history," Poletto said. "Those who point the finger at a few priests forget to say how much good the Church and its institutions have done for humanity throughout history."

In remarks quoted by the ANSA news agency, Poletto chided the media, saying the display of the Shroud of Turin "can help make us all better people, even you journalists."

Celebrating mass later Saturday, Poletto said the shroud was a testament to "hidden suffering endured in silence between tears and despair."

He recalled that the late pope John Paul II said the shroud evoked thoughts of the "millions of men who die of hunger, of the horrors perpetrated in so many wars (and) the brutal exploitation of women and children."

Pope Benedict XVI will pay homage to the shroud on May 2.

Benedict said his visit would be "a propitious occasion to contemplate this mysterious visage that speaks silently to the heart of men, inviting them to recognise the face of God."

The Vatican has never pronounced on the authenticity of the shroud.


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