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Thousands attend mass for Italy's first mafia martyr

A nun shows a portrait of Father Giuseppe 'Pino' Puglisi during his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013
A nun shows a portrait of Father Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, an outspoken anti-Mafia advocate, during his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013. Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful attended a ceremony in Sicily on Saturday putting on the path

Tens of thousands of Catholic faithful attended a ceremony in Sicily on Saturday putting on the path to sainthood a priest shot dead by the mafia 20 years ago for preaching against organised crime.

The killing of Father Pino Puglisi, a parish priest working in a crime-heavy neighbourhood of the regional capital Palermo, shocked the nation and helped turn public opinion against the mafia.

The cardinal emeritus of Palermo, Salvatore De Giorgi, presided at the beatification with dozens of priests and officials in attendance -- in contrast to when Puglisi's pleas for help were ignored by many religious and political leaders.

"Puglisi's beatification is an eagerly awaited gift from God for Sicily and beyond," De Giorgi wrote in the Vatican's Osservatore Romano daily.

A portrait of Father Giuseppe 'Pino' Puglisi hangs at his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013
A portrait of Father Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, an outspoken anti-Mafia advocate, hangs over about 80,000 people during his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013.

"Twenty years after his murder, Don Puglisi is speaking again and louder than ever," he said.

But his brother Gaetano was quoted as saying in recent book about Puglisi's life: "I would have preferred him alive instead of blessed.

"The Church is beatifying him now but when he needed help, no one helped Pino," he said.

Thousands attend the beatification ceremony of Father Giuseppe 'Pino' Puglisi in Palermo on May 25, 2013
Thousands attend the beatification ceremony of Father Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, an outspoken anti-Mafia advocate, in Palermo on May 25, 2013.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano and Justice Minister Annamaria Cancellieri also attended the beatification in a stadium in Palermo, which revived memories of a spate of high-profile mafia killings and bomb attacks in the early 1990s.

The community centre that Puglisi founded is still regularly targeted by criminals. Last month there was an arson attack on an area where it is planning to build a new church in his honour.

Puglisi is the first mafia victim to be declared by the Vatican a "martyr of the faith" -- which makes him beatified, or blessed, and is the first step to official sainthood for the Church.

Puglisi was shot in the street on his 56th birthday on September 15, 1993 as he was returning home in the Brancaccio quarter in Palermo.

He was approached by a kill team of four people and initially thought it was an armed robbery.

Images of Father Giuseppe 'Pino' Puglisi are seen at his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013
Images of Father Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, an outspoken anti-Mafia advocate, are seen at his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013. The community centre that Puglisi founded is still regularly targeted by criminals.

When he realised who the criminals were, he smiled and told them: "I have been waiting for you."

Two of the perpetrators, who were all caught and given life sentences, later turned against the mafia and became key witnesses in trials that put dozens of gangsters behind bars.

One of the two is now a devout Catholic and the second, the trigger man, told investigators he has been haunted by Puglisi's smile ever since.

Boy scouts hold a banner with image of Father Giuseppe 'Pino' Puglisi in Palermo on May 25, 2013
Boy scouts hold a banner with image of Father Giuseppe "Pino" Puglisi, an outspoken anti-Mafia advocate, which reads "If each of us do something, he will do more", during his beatification ceremony in Palermo on May 25, 2013.

The killing was ordered by the then godfathers of Brancaccio, the Graviano brothers, who are also serving life sentences for the murder.

The Gravianos were reportedly angry that Puglisi was turning young people away from a life of crime and was openly critical of their power.

"If God is with us, who will be against us! I am not afraid of dying if what I say is the truth," Puglisi said in one of his homilies.

The killing of a priest was particularly shocking in a society where known gangsters attend mass and are often benefactors of their local churches.

"There were churchmen who colluded with the mafia but then there were those like Puglisi who fought against it," said Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando.

The proponent of Puglisi's beatification, archbishop Vincenzo Bertolone, said: "The mafia is a religion and not just a criminal phenomenon and it does not allow other faiths.

"His martyrdom was a signal for the irreparable and definitive rupture between the Bible and the mafia and other similar criminal syndicates."

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