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Italian Royals, Pope John Paul II Meet

December 23, 2002

ROME (AP) _ Victor Emmanuel, the son of Italy’s last king, returned to Italy with his family on Monday after a half-century of exile imposed because of the monarchy’s support for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

The family landed at Rome’s Ciampino military airport at 9:07 a.m. in a private plane for a one-day visit and traveled directly to the Vatican, where they had a 20-minute audience with Pope John Paul II.

An emotional Victor Emmanuel thanked the pope for welcoming the family and called the visit ``nearly a page in history,″ papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

They became legally able to enter Italy last month, when a law went into effect overturning a 54-year-old constitutional ban on the presence of the last monarch’s male heirs in Italy.

The royals left Rome for Switzerland later Monday, due to a back injury that Victor Emmanuel suffered in a recent motor rally accident in Egypt. They planned to come back to Italy in February.

``This time, we wanted to come before Christmas to visit his holiness, but we’ll be back when my health is better,″ Victor Emmanuel told reporters as his family prepared to board their flight back to Geneva.

Victor Emmanuel was 9 when he left his homeland. His son, Emmanuel Filiberto, born and raised in Switzerland, had never been to Italy before Monday.

Emmanuel Filiberto described the trip with his father and mother, Marina Doria, as magnificent.

``For me it was something magical,″ he said.

Many Italians had considered the ban outdated, and felt it was time to end the exile, analyst Sergio Romano said.

``After all, they have not been personally responsible for anything and you cannot maintain that ban indefinitely,″ Romano said.

A small group of Italian monarchists was delighted.

``I’m happy because the exile finishes concretely at the moment they enter Italian territory,″ said Sergio Boschiero of the Italian Monarchic Union. ``An injustice is wiped out.″

The males were banned from Italy as punishment for the family’s wartime support of Mussolini.

One member of the royal entourage described Victor Emmanuel’s response on arrival.

``I saw him tremble,″ said family friend Hana Husak, who was among the six passengers on the plane. ``He stood silent and was very emotional.″

During the audience with the pope, the family presented the pontiff with two books about their family and a print of a family member. The pope gave them a rosary.

The pope welcomed them to the Vatican, gave them his blessing, wished them a ``Merry Christmas″ and said ``Alla prossima″ _ or ``Until next time,″ Navarro-Valls said.

The spokesman said the family had requested the audience, and that he did not know why the Savoys had not paid a courtesy call on members of the Italian government.

On May 9, 1946, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in favor of his son Umberto II. But Umberto lasted only a month before a referendum in which Italians voted to scrap the monarchy and make the country a republic.

Two years later, the republic’s new constitution barred Umberto and his male descendants from Italy.

The royals have been lobbying for years for the return, even taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Over the summer, Parliament gave final approval to lifting the constitutional ban.

Some monarchists hoped that the royals would make a visit to the Pantheon, the ancient Roman monument where the family’s ancestors are buried.

A small number of elderly volunteers stood guard in front of the family tombs. The 83-year-old retired Lt. Col. Francesco Silvestri said he was loyal to the royal family _ although he did not think that much of the current crop.

``Poor things,″ he said. ``These three are really nothing special compared to their ancestors.″

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