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Mourners protest shunning of Italian euthanasia advocate

The coffin of Piergiorgio Welby was brought in for his funeral service in Rome yesterday. The euthanasia advocate was denied a religious service by the Roman Catholic Church. (MAX ROSSI/REUTERS)

ROME -- Several thousand people, some chanting "shame, shame, shame," attended a lay funeral in a Rome square yesterday for a paralyzed man who was denied a Catholic service because he had asked to die.

Pope Benedict entered the debate over the death of Piergiorgio Welby by condemning euthanasia and saying life was sacred until its "natural sunset."

Welby died on Wednesday after a doctor gave him sedatives and detached a respirator that had kept the victim of advanced muscular dystrophy alive for years.

The lay service for the 60-year-old, an eloquent advocate of euthanasia, was held outside the parish where his family, particularly his devoutly religious mother, had wanted a religious funeral.

Some mourners in the crowd, which organizers estimated at 4,000, shouted "shame, shame, shame" to protest the Church's decision to deny him a religious funeral.

The local parish priest had favored a religious service but he was overruled by Rome's Vicariate, or bishop's office, which said Welby had repeatedly affirmed his desire to end his own life, which is against Catholic doctrine.

Many in Italy, including some Catholics and even one bishop from northern Italy, condemned the decision as insensitive.

"I was shocked by the decision not to give him a religious funeral," Father Gianfranco Formenton, told Radio Radicale, the organ of the party that defended Welby's right to die.

"We [the Church] have allowed funerals for [former Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet, [former Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco and for mafiosi, but we refuse a funeral for a man just because he asked to die," the priest said.

Speaking at the Vatican on Christmas Eve, just as the lay funeral was ending on the other side of Rome, Pope Benedict underlined the Church's position on euthanasia.

"The birth of Christ helps us to understand how much value human life has, the life of every human being, from its first instant to its natural sunset," he told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square for his weekly blessing.

Welby was confined to his bed and communicated mostly via computer that interpreted his eye movements. He had been asking to die for months.

The crowd at the funeral applauded during speeches by those who supported his right to die, including his wife, Mina, and former European Commissioner Emma Bonino. His coffin was then driven away for a cremation.

"The Vatican's position appears incomprehensible and devoid of human pity," said Gavino Angius, a senator from the largest party in the ruling center-left coalition.

"It leaves us stunned. This is Christmas. I don't think Jesus would have appreciated a decision like this," he told reporters at the funeral.

Dr. Mario Riccio, who turned off the respirator after giving Welby sedatives, denied Friday he had performed euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy and could land him with between 10 and 15 years in jail. One politician has asked for Riccio's arrest on a charge of murder.

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