Pontiff reins friars in

By Peter Popham

ROME: The friars of the shrine of St Francis of Assisi, the world-famous centre of inter-religious dialogue and Christian pacifism, have been brought to heel by Pope Benedict XVI.

The mendicant friars, who welcome millions of pilgrims every year to the burial place of St Francis, have at a stroke lost the autonomy that made them one of the boldest and most adventurous institutions in the Catholic Church.

The friars were granted autonomy by Pope Paul VI in 1969, and the shrine in the Umbrian hills has since become renowned for its annual peace marches and for two peace conferences, in 1986 and 2002, which caused outrage among conservative Catholics. The Pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, said at the time of the first conference, "this cannot be the model" for ecumenical dialogue.

Vittorio Messori, a conservative Catholic commentator, said: "The Church has a long memory. Joseph Ratzinger has had an account to settle with the friars of Assisi since the inter-religious meeting of 1986. Now he has fixed it".

"Ratzinger has not forgiven the Franciscan community for the excesses of the first day of prayer of the religious leaders with [Pope John Paul II]. It ... was the friars who broke the agreement they had made. They went so far as to allow African animists to slaughter chickens on the altar of the basilica of Santa Chiara, and American redskins to dance in the church."

Other conservatives remembered bitterly the visit to Assisi of the nominally Christian former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in February 2003, as part of a last-ditch attempt to halt the imminent Iraq war.

But others were dismayed by the Pope's decision to put Assisi under the control of the local bishop, a cardinal, and Cardinal Ruini, the fiercely conservative head of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

"The fort of dialogue has fallen," lamented Livia Turco of the Democrats while La Repubblica called it "a shocking initiative". The friars themselves were more diplomatic. "One Pope gives, the next takes away," said Father Vincenzo.

- INDEPENDENT

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