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Monday, August 13 10:37 AM SGT

Controversy over missing Zambian archbishop refuses to die down

VATICAN CITY, Aug 13 (AFP) -

The bizarre saga of Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo has taken on a new twist, with the Vatican strongly denying the renegade clergyman is being kept in the papal palace.

Milingo has not been seen since early last week when the Roman Catholic church withdrew a threat of excommunication against him for marrying at a mass wedding ceremony officiated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the South Korean Unification Church.

The Italian daily Il Messagero created a new controversy around the 71-year-old Lusaka archbishop when it published a report Sunday under the heading "Milingo is 'secure' in the papal palace".

The article quoted an unnamed source saying Milingo is staying in an attic immediately above Pope John Paul II's apartment.

This version of events was dismissed by Vatican spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini on Sunday with a terse: "I am unable to account for the imagination of journalists."

The Vatican has generally been keeping tight-lipped over the controversial Milingo's activities.

The priest outraged Catholics in his native Zambia and worldwide when he married 43-year-old South Korean doctor Maria Sung in New York on May 27.

The Roman Catholic Church threatened Milingo with "sanctions" -- widely interpreted to mean excommunication -- if he did not separate from his wife and cut ties with the activities of the Unification Church by August 20.

That ultimatum was withdrawn on Tuesday after Milingo had talks with Pope John Paul II at Castlegandolfo, the papal summer residence.

Vatican officials said the deadline had been scrapped because it would be more appropriate first to have lengthy discussions with the troublesome priest.

But even after that meeting with the pontiff, Milingo refused to go quietly. He told reporters at a news conference Wednesday he intended to bring his wife to the Vatican.

"I am no longer alone," he told reporters. "There is my wife. By what right, before the whole world, could I simply abandon her? She also must hear the reasons of the church. It is absolutely necessary that an agreement is found that does not bypass the rights of my wife."

The meeting between Sung and Vatican officials never took place and on Saturday she told reporters she would go on a hunger strike if the church didn't let her see her husband.

Antonio Ciacciarelli, a spokesman for the Unification Church, said Sung would begin her hunger strike on Tuesday.

The Vatican press office said Milingo had freely asked for a period of reflection and prayer and added that if "the feelings of Maria Sung merit respect, the spiritual work of Milingo merits the same respect."

Healer, exorcist and even a singer, Archbishop Malingo has seldom been out of the headlines.

After becoming a priest at the age of 28, he was nominated Archbishop of Lusaka at 39, a post he held for 14 years before falling out of the Vatican's favour.

In 1983 he was recalled to Rome to face a trial by the clergy. Referring to this in his autobiography "The Healer of Souls" he accused the Vatican of "kidnapping" him and forcing him to live "like a prisoner" in a monastery.

The Vatican has been growing increasingly exasperated with the Zambian since he became cosy with Moon's controversial Unification Church.


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