Hundreds of people jeered as the coffin of Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke arrived Tuesday for a funeral Mass near Rome organized by a splinter Catholic group opposed to Vatican outreach to Jews.
Ever since Priebke died Friday at age 100, debate has raged over what to do with his remains, with Pope Francis' vicar for Rome refusing him a funeral in a Catholic church. Priebke participated in one of the worst massacres in German-occupied Italy during World War II, the slaughter of 335 civilians at the Areatine Caves outside Rome.
No one appeared ready to take him until the Society of St. Pius X in the city of Albano Laziale stepped forward to organize the Funeral Mass.
As the hearse bringing the coffin arrived outside the society's church, people in the crowd slammed their fists and umbrellas on the car and shouted "We are all anti-fascist!" and "Priebke, murderer!" One woman fainted.
The society was formed in 1969, opposed to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its outreach to Jews. It split from Rome after its leader consecrated bishops without papal consent. It currently has no legal standing in the Catholic Church.
One of its disgraced members is Bishop Richard Williamson, who made headlines in 2009 when he denied that any Jews were killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust.
Priebke espoused the same views. In a final interview released by his lawyer upon his death, Priebke denied the Nazis gassed Jews during the Holocaust and accused the West of inventing such crimes to cover up atrocities committed by the Allies during World War II.
Once word spread that the society would celebrate the mass, the mayor of Albano Laziale issued an ordinance trying to block the coffin from arriving but was overruled by the government prefect.
Priebke spent nearly 50 years as a fugitive before being extradited to Italy from Argentina in 1995 to stand trial for the 1944 massacre. He died in the Rome home of his lawyer, Paolo Giachini, where he had been serving his life term under house arrest.
Giachini has said he merely wanted a Catholic funeral for his client, whom he said had confessed his sins and been absolved.
But the pope's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Agostino Vallini refused him a church funeral, presumably on the grounds that it could create a public disturbance or allow the service to be used by other Holocaust-deniers to promote a political agenda.
The move was highly unusual, but was done to take into account the remarkable outpouring of emotion that Priebke's death has unleashed, particularly in Rome's Jewish community.
Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the roundup of Jews from Rome's ghetto.