NEW YORK (AFP) - Tens of thousands of evangelical Christians gathered in New York for what the country's best-known preacher, Billy Graham, said would be his final "crusade" for souls in the United States.
Some 70,000 seats were laid out for the event in Corona Park, Queens, with room for thousands more in dedicated overflow sections.
Spanning three-days, the mass prayer meeting was free to everyone, with local churches, individual donors and on-the-spot offerings helping to meet the estimated 6.8 million dollar staging costs.
Attendance was expected to be especially high after Graham, now 86 and in failing health, confirmed that his latest soul-saving mission would also be his last in this country.
The man once described by former president George H.W. Bush as "America's pastor" has preached the gospel to more than 200 million people in 180 countries and territories.
In recent years, however, the globetrotting preacher has been curtailed by declining physical health. Graham suffers from Parkinson's disease, fluid on the brain and prostate cancer, and uses a walker following a pelvic fracture in 2004.
Graham was scheduled to deliver three, 35-minute sermons on each evening of the crusade in Queens, although his son Franklin was standing by as a substitute preacher if needed.
Franklin, 52, is his father's designated successor, having already taken over as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Thousands of volunteers from more than 1,300 New York area churches have helped in organising the event.
Reflecting New York's ethnic diversity, headsets were made available providing simultaneous translations in 20 languages from Hungarian to Hindi.
More than 250,000 people turned out for Graham's last New York crusade in Manhattan's Central Park in 1991.
Born in 1918 in North Carolina, Graham was ordained in 1939.
He established his preaching credentials at a rally in Los Angeles in 1949, but really rose to national prominence with a 1957 crusade at New York's Madison Square Garden, which was scheduled for six weeks but lasted four months.
Asked why he chose New York -- often seen as a symbol of secular America -- for his last US crusade, Graham cited the ethnic diversity of the city as well as the need for spiritual healing in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Graham has been invited to the White House by every president since Harry Truman and has prayed at eight presidential inaugurals. He even managed two visits in 1992 and 1994 to the isolated Stalinist state of North Korea.
His enduring popularity at home is partly attributable to his avoidance of any of the sexual or financial scandals that afflicted a number of the evangelists he inspired.
In his later years, he has also kept away from hot-button political issues like homosexual rights that have become a favoured battleground for many on the evangelical right.
"There are many times I went too far in talking about those issues. I think this time, I want to stick only to the Gospel," he told a press conference ahead of the New York crusade.