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Rome - The death in Rome of a Nazi war criminal has sparked a furore after the Vatican banned a church funeral, Argentina refused the body and relatives of his victims called for him to be cremated.
Erich Priebke, who was found guilty of a 1944 massacre in Rome and had been living under house arrest in the city, died last week aged 100.
As his body lies in a Rome hospital morgue, debate rages over what to do with the mortal remains of a man who never expressed any regret, insisting to the end that he was just following orders.
The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which hunts Nazis around the world, said the body should be sent back to his native Germany which has laws that would prevent a neo-Nazi gathering.
Tensions are running particularly high ahead of the 70th anniversary of the deportation of thousands of Jews from Rome's ancient Jewish Ghetto by Nazi troops on October 16, 1943.
There is concern that any ceremony could draw far-right sympathisers after a group tried to lay flowers at the house where he died and a scrawl reading “Honour to Priebke” next to a black swastika symbol appeared on a wall nearby.
Priebke's lawyer Paolo Giachini had initially said that the former SS officer would be buried near his wife in Argentina, where he lived for 40 years after the war - but Argentina refused.
Rome religious authorities have also said there can be no church funeral for him in the city.
Giachini on Monday threatened to hold a ceremony in Rome's Villa Borghese park, or “in the street if the church will not agree to hold a funeral”.
“His children want him to have a Catholic funeral. They want the wishes of their father, who was always a Christian man, to be respected,” he said.
“The age of the catacombs is over. You cannot ban or hide a funeral, it is a right.”
After the war, Priebke escaped from a British POW camp and was supplied with Vatican travel documents by a Catholic bishop.
He lived for nearly 50 years in Argentina, before being arrested in 1994 and then extradited to Italy in 1996 for trial.
He was sentenced to life in prison in 1998 for his role in the bloodbath at Rome's Ardeatine caves that left 335 people dead, including 75 Jews.
But because of his age and ill-health he was allowed to serve out his life sentence at Giachini's home.
Antonio Curcio, priest at the nearby Immaculate Saint Mary of Lourdes, told Il Messaggero he would perform a funeral rite at a private ceremony if asked.
“If the family asks for a private rite at home... it cannot be denied to any Christian,” he said.
But the Wiesenthal Centre said he should be sent to Germany and cremated.
“That would be the most efficient way to leave no trace of a Nazi criminal like Priebke,” director Efraim Zuroff told La Stampa daily.
“Hitler's body was also burnt and that was the best solution because it allowed the destruction of everything Nazism represented,” he said.
Riccardo Pacifici, head of Rome's Jewish community, agreed that “Priebke should be returned to Germany and his place of birth, Berlin.”
A spokesman for Germany's foreign ministry said there had not been any official request to repatriate Priebke's body.
“It is not up to the German government to decide where or how Mr Priebke's body should be buried. It is a decision for his family,” the spokesman said, adding that “a German citizen can of course be buried in Germany.”
Relatives of Priebke's victims said he should be cremated and the ashes scattered in secret.
“He was a man without pity,” Amedeo Tedesco, whose father was killed aged 31 in the massacre, told Il Messaggero.
“The best thing would be to cremate him and scatter the ashes to the wind without revealing where,” he said.
“He should be forgotten and never spoken of again. Burying him in Rome would bring fanatics to his tomb.”
Carlo Stilli, whose father-in-law was killed, said the wounds were still too fresh to consider Rome housing Priebke's body.
“How can the city take in the body of its enemy? There is no room here for a creature so utterly obscene,” he said.