by Vivienne Hewitt in Rome IN THE face of public condemnation, the Vatican hierarchy is urging a permanent military presence, in addition to police reinforcements, in a region of Italy torn by crime. The Church call for Italian army troops to patrol the Aspromonte mountain zone of Calabria, at the "toe" of the boot-shaped peninsula, follows the failure this summer of Italy's episcopal conference appeal to the Mafia crime ring for a "truce of God".
"This area is our diseased heart", said Calabrian Bishop Giuseppe Marra last week in a controversial welcome address to a special army battalion temporarily despatched from a north Italian barracks to the rugged hillsides. "The army is not called on to cure the disease but to act as a bolster for those affected by it", the bishop added.
Partly because of a 17-yearlong vendetta war between two rival Mafia clans in the area, murders are registered at an average rate of five a week. Fifty local criminals are on the run and the zone is used as an operative base for kidnappings for ransom. The mountain slopes — no-go areas for police — also serve as prisons for kidnap victims.
Now backed by a military presence, police in helicopters fly over the hillsides calling out the time, date and location through special loudhailers to help reorientate kidnap victims often held captive for over a year.
Yet, the clergy remain among the few w ho admit the area has a crime problem at all. One Aspromonte town mayor said the army presence frightened locals and church endosement "irritated" them. He denied Aspromonte had a high crime rate despite official police statistics. "The Mafia may be in other areas but not here", said Mayor Rocco Corigli ano.
In reply to condemnation of an episcopal welcome to the army battalion — the first of several troop-drops scheduled — Bishop Marra reiterated church hopes that "many more sold iers" would be seconded to Calab ria.
"Pope John Paul 11 receives army officers and tal ks to them of peace", he said defending the call.
The Pope travelled to Calabria in June for a meeting with the Italian episcopal conference which had launched a dramatic appeal to Mafia clansmen to reconcile themselves with God and the Church.