A Sicilian priest gunned down by the Mafia 20 years ago outside his home in Palermo has been beatified in a seafront ceremony attended by an estimated 100,000 people from all over Italy.
Fr Giuseppe Puglisi was shot in the back of the head in September 1993 in the crime-ridden Brancaccio district of the Sicilian capital where he preached against the Mafia.
School parties, local dignitaries and government ministers braved a stiff wind as the Emeritus Archbishop of Palermo read out the formal letter of beatification from Pope Francis in Latin.
Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict, put Fr Puglisi on the fast-track towards sainthood when he signed a decree last year recognising that Puglisi had been killed "in hatred of the faith".
That meant he could be beatified – the last step before sainthood – without a miracle being attributed to his intercession with God. A miracle is required for him to be declared a saint, however.
A huge photo of Fr Puglisi was unveiled as white doves were released in yesterday's two-hour ceremony in a vast square surrounded by palm trees. He was repeatedly referred to as a "martyr" who paid for his constant preachings against the Sicilian mob.
He was killed for "depriving the Mafia of support, manpower and control of the city" with his large following in Palermo, said Cardinal Paolo Romeo, the primate of Sicily who presided over most of the ceremony.
Many of the faithful wore T-shirts with photos of Fr Puglisi, who was killed on his 56th birthday after serving in Palermo for 33 years.
President Giorgio Napolitano said in a statement that Fr Puglisi "continues to be an example for all those who refuse to give in to the power of organised crime".
Six mafiosi were sentenced to life in prison for the murder, which took place a year after the high-profile killings on the island of anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, at a time when the Sicilian Mafia was particularly ruthless.
Known as Cosa Nostra, it is probably the best-known of Italy's three main criminal organisations, but in the past two decades many of its top bosses have been captured.
The Camorra, which operates around the southern port of Naples, and the 'Ndrangheta, based in the most southerly mainland region of Calabria, are now considered more powerful.