Catholic group holds Nazi war criminal's funeral

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Erich Priebke pictured in 2007. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
16:54 CEST+02:00
A town near Rome on Tuesday tried to ban the celebration of a Nazi war criminal's funeral by a Catholic traditionalist group on its territory.

Catholic traditionalists held a funeral in a town near Rome on Tuesday for a Nazi war criminal despite protests by anti-fascists and an attempt by the local mayor to ban the proceedings.

A hearse carried the body of former SS officer Erich Priebke from a hospital morgue in Rome to a seminary of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius X in Albano for the private ceremony.

Dozens of angry protesters banged on the hearse as it was taken in for the ceremony, holding up a banner read "Priebke Hangman" and singing the Italian partisan song "Bella Ciao".

"Take him to the landfill!" one man shouted, as around 20 police in riot gear held the crowd back from entering the gates behind the hearse.

A priest from the Society of St Pius X had to be protected by police as he tried to enter the seminary after being shoved by the protesters.

"There will be a mass in Latin behind closed doors. Only for close friends and family," Priebke's lawyer Paolo Giachini told reporters.

"This is a moment of mourning and has nothing to do with politics. We have done our best to respect the feelings of his critics," Giachini said.

But Albano's mayor, Nicola Marini, from the leftist Democratic Party, said he was "shocked" and issued a last-minute decree banning the body from being transported through the small town.

"We have a tradition of resistance here. This really hurts us," he said.

Marini's decree was however immediately struck down by Rome's prefecture, which is responsible for public order in and around the Italian capital.

Priebke died last week aged 100 while living under house arrest in Rome for a 1944 massacre of 335 people, including 75 Jews, at the Ardeatine caves outside the city.

The Holocaust denier was unrepentant to the end.

There is still no confirmation of where Priebke could be buried or whether he could be cremated, amid fears that a burial site could become a rallying point for extremist far-right groups.

Argentina, where Priebke lived for nearly 50 years before being extradited to Italy and where he wanted to be buried, has refused to take the body.

The Vatican also issued an unprecedented ban on celebrating the funeral in any Catholic church in Rome, although it said that a priest could officiate a private ceremony at home.

Jewish groups and relatives of the massacre victims have said the body should be cremated and the ashes scattered to erase his memory forever.

The Society of St Pius X is a Catholic conservative group that broke off from the Vatican in 1970 over opposition to reforms and is often accused of far-right and anti-Semitic leanings.

A British bishop who used to belong to the Society, Richard Williamson, has been convicted in Germany in absentia for being a Holocaust denier.

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Priebke escaped from a British POW camp in Italy immediately after World War II and was supplied with Vatican travel documents by a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic bishop.

He lived in Argentina, before being placed under house arrest in 1994 following a news report on him. Priebke was extradited to Italy in 1996.

He was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for his role in the bloodbath at the Ardeatine caves.

Because of his age and ill-health he was allowed to serve out his life sentence at home.

Far-right sympathizers earlier this week were prevented by police from laying flowers outside the house where he died. But a scrawl reading "Honour to Priebke" next to a black swastika symbol appeared on a wall nearby.

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