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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict's decision to turn the screws on Franciscan monks in Assisi -- considered too leftist by some Italian Catholics -- has provoked a political storm in Italy as the country approaches national elections.
Benedict at the weekend issued a rare decree curbing the autonomy of the monks who are the guardians of the body of St Francis and who welcome millions of visitors from around the world to his burial place in the central Umbria region.
The move marked the first attempt by Benedict to discipline a religious order and revoked another decree issued by Pope Paul VI in 1969 which gave the Assisi monks wide-ranging autonomy.
"Now the Franciscans have their hands tied and can no longer be a bridge between the Church and society," complained Livia Turco, a former government minister and member of the largest party in the opposition coalition, the Democrats of the Left.
In the past decades, the monks of Assisi, which is one of the holiest and most visited sites in all Christendom, have been associated with leftist political parties and leftist causes.
The annual Easter season peace march organised by the Assisi monks is frequented by leftist leaders and often boycotted by centre-right politicians.
They have also hosted highly controversial figures such as former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, Italian communist party leaders and Oscar-winning actor-director Roberto Benigni, a life-long leftist.
Senator Maurizio Ronconi of the UDC party was one of the centre-right politicians who welcomed the Pope's move, saying the left had "exploited" the monks politically for years.
Benedict's decree declared that the monks would have to seek the local bishop's permission for any future initiatives.
Commentators said this would deprive the centre-left of one of its most visible platforms ahead of next April's elections, thereby helping the centre-right, which has worked hard to woo the powerful Roman Catholic vote.
Rome Cardinal Camillo Ruini, one of the three men who will monitor the monks, has served notice to the centre-left that it will not tolerate any attempts to enact liberal legislation such as allowing gay marriages or widening abortion rights.
The Pope, who was the Vatican's doctrinal enforcer for nearly 25 years before his election last April, also told the monks that their religious celebrations had to adhere to norms.
This was a reference to inter-religious meetings and prayers which some conservatives in the Church felt went too far because they bordered on syncretism, or blending religious beliefs.
The monks found favour under the late Pope John Paul, who visited Assisi several times and held two of his world peace meetings with other religious leaders there.
Benedict's decree, which prompted a flood of editorial comment, was welcomed by the outgoing bishop of Assisi.
"It's about time," Bishop Sergio Goretti said in an interview in La Repubblica daily, adding that the monks had become "an autonomous enclave" which caused him many problems.
"Sometimes I only found out what the monks were doing when I read about it in the newspapers," he said.
The monks themselves sought to play down the papal curb, saying in a statement they would continue carrying out their duties in the "spirit of St. Francis".
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