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‘Cowardly’ priests paid Mafia boss respect in Church parade

The gesture came just two weeks after Pope Francis made a strong condemnation of organised crime

The battle between society and the Mafia for hearts and minds was stepped up as the Church’s most powerful institutions attacked a Catholic parade that appeared to honour a notorious crime boss.

Marchers carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina, stopped for a minute outside the home of the ‘Ndrangheta clan leader, Peppe Mazzaggati, seemingly as a mark of respect.

This prompted the Carabinieri marshall Andrea Marino, to leave the procession in protest. Politicians and church figures rushed to commend the policeman, and condemn the marchers.

Rosy Bindi, the president of the Parliamentary anti-Mafia commission telephoned Marshall Marino to thank him for “the loyalty and sense of duty” he had shown to the state and its institutions. Interior minister Angelino Alfano described the incident as “deplorable”.

Monsignor Salvatore Nunnari, the president of the Calabrian bishops’ organisation, said: “I’m concerned that the priests did not have the courage to leave the procession.

"When the carabinieri left, the priests should have gone, too. This would have given a strong signal.”

Significantly, the gesture to the ‘Ndrangheta boss came just two weeks after Pope Francis, visiting the Calabrian town of Rosarno, made one of the strongest condemnations of organised crime ever heard from a pontiff.

He said that ‘Ndrangheta, which has grown into Italy’s biggest Mafia group due to its domination of Europe’s cocaine trade, was an example of the “adoration of evil and contempt of the common good”. He said the Church would exert its full force in efforts to fight it.

“Those who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated,” he said.

The Calabrian anti-Mafia magistrate, Nicola Gratteri, told the QN newspaper, the pro-Mafia gesture, was “a challenge to the words of Bergoglio [Pope Francis]”.

Meanwhile, around 200 ‘Ndrangheta convicts in Larino prison are refusing to attend mass in the jail’s chapel, in a protest at Francis’s attacks organised crime, saying that if they are excommunicated, there is no point in going to church.

Mafia expert and author Roberto Saviano said the “strike” showed how effective the Pope’s declaration of excommunication had been. He said it might help weaken the Mafia’s hold over some sections of civil society.

Some of Church’s most powerful institutions joined in the criticism of the Oppido Mamertina march, as a video of events appeared online.

Monsignor Nunzio Galantino, general secretary of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI), said: “The Virgin Mary does not bow down to evil people. They did something that the Madonna would never do. Despite what happened, the message Pope Francis gave 15 days ago, remains valid.”

Christian Family, the influential Catholic weekly, described events in Oppido Mamertina as “shocking”.

The town’s mayor, Domenicao Giannetta, denied that the procession had honoured 82-year-old Mazzaggati, who despite life sentences for murder and Mafia association, is detained under house arrest on health grounds.