March 9, 2016 / 4:23 PM / 2 years ago

Neapolitans vow to keep Church's hands off saint's 'treasure'

NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - A new revolt against church and state is gripping Naples, the Italian city that drove out Spain’s religious inquisitors in the 1500s. This one is about treasure.

White sheets hang from a rope to protest against the decision of the Italian government to re-found the deputation of San Gennaro in Naples, Italy. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

It is specifically about who is in control of an astonishing collection of more than 20,000 objects said to rival Britain’s Crown Jewels.

“The Treasure of San Gennaro” is housed in an ornate chapel built some 20 years after proud Neapolitians chased the Spanish Inquisition out in 1510.

It was begun there to honor Naples’ patron and protector, San Gennaro. The treasure, from a bejeweled mitre to golden chalices and silver statues, started when the faithful prayed to be spared from the plague and eruptions by Mt. Vesuvius.

Until now, an independent committee of laymen has managed the chapel and the treasure. But a government decree could put the Catholic Church in at least partial control.

The decree, signed by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last month after a court ruling, defined the chapel as an entity that would usually have clerics on its board.

“This is a question of power,” said Paolo Jorio, director of the museum that houses the treasure. “The cardinals have been very annoyed that they don’t have a say in the running of the chapel.”

Some 2,000 people turned out last Saturday to protest against the decree and show their support for the committee, which plans to appeal to a regional court.

Visitors look at the Necklace of St. Januarius, made in 1679 by goldsmith Michele Dato part of the treasure of Museum of Saint Januarius in Naples, south Italy, March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca

“This is our tradition. We paid for this floor ourselves,” said committee vice president Riccardo Carafa d‘Andria, pointing to the city crests carved in the paving stones where the chapel gates open into Naples Cathedral.

The Catholic Church rejects suggestions local prelates have used their influence in Rome to change the centuries-old status quo.

Naples archdiocese spokesman Enzo Piscopo said: “As the cardinal has said, there is a time to speak and a time to be quiet. This is a time to be quiet and pray. We were all born to suffer.”

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“BLOOD MIRACLE”

In the meantime, there is also the question of the blood.

The lay committee also looks after an ampoule said to contain the dried blood of San Gennaro, who was beheaded for sheltering Christians under Roman Emperor Diocletian.

The blood traditionally liquefies three times a year at packed ceremonies that the faithful hail as a miracle and others see as a chemical reaction from moving the ampoule.

Supporters of the committee have tied white handkerchiefs to the heavy brass gates of the chapel, mimicking the tradition whereby a handkerchief is waved before the faithful when the saint’s blood liquefies.

“This is not a question of folklore, it is about culture, our identity, our dignity as a people that has shown we can look after our saint ourselves,” said Francesco Andoli, a journalist leading an online campaign called “Hands off San Gennaro”.

Reporting by Isla Binnie; editing by Philip Pullella/Jeremy Gaunt

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