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Protests at plan to exhume Padre Pio

A plan to exhume the remains of Italy's favourite saint to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death has sparked a protest by followers who threaten to go to court to make sure he rests in peace.

The exhumation would give millions of Italians another chance to pay tribute to Padre Pio, a 20th century mystic monk said to have suffered from stigmata.

Archbishop Domenico D'Ambrosio announced at the weekend his intention to lift the saint from his crypt in southern Italy and put him in full view for several months, starting in April.

"It is our duty to allow the generations that come after us the ability to venerate and best care for his mortal remains," D'Ambrosio said in a sermon.

But other Catholics, like Francesco Traversi, who heads the Association Pro-Padre Pio, are threatening to block the exhumation in court.

"They can't do it [without the relatives' permission] because otherwise they'll be committing a crime," Traversi said.

Traversi added that he had the support of Padre Pio's closest relatives, although an Italian news agency quoted one relative as denying that.

Padre Pio's popularity is hard to overestimate. A Catholic magazine once found far more Italian Catholics pray to him than any other icon of the faith, including the Virgin Mary or Jesus.