A SPECIALIST Italian police squad has been set up to combat a growing tide of Satanism sweeping the country.
Vatican officials have become worried at the number of churches being desecrated by Satanists and there have been several grim murders linked to devil worship.
As a result, church officials have given Italian police help to set up a special unit to deal with the phenomenon, named the Squadra Anti Sette (SAS) Anti Sect Squad. Units will work out of cities across the country to combat the nationwide problem and will be centrally controlled from Rome by police chief Gianni De Gennaro.
As well as officers who will go undercover to infiltrate the sects, the SAS units will work with psychologists. They will have help from Vatican experts on Satanism and a special freephone hotline has been set up to report occult activities.
The units' main task will be to keep an eye on the world of the occult and gather data which will help combat the problem and stop criminal acts including murder, rape and vandalism.
Many of the new wave of Satanists in Italy indulge in a potentially lethal blend of black magic, hard drugs, sex and heavy metal. One recent case that dominated the headlines was the "Beasts of Satan" trial of a group of Satanists who bludgeoned the rock band's singer and his girlfriend before burying them alive in woods near Milan.
They were all sentenced to life, and police believe there may be other victims of the sect buried in the woods as several people are missing.
The Vatican is providing help in the form of Don Oreste Benzi, one of its primary experts on Satanism and the occult.
Don Benzi said: "We will provide the units with priests who have experience in the field of devil worship and the occult. They will help the SAS to combat this problem, which is growing at an alarming rate across Italy. Already in the past we have seen churches desecrated and lives taken away through devil worship.
"We are not just talking about murders but the psychological grip that these sects have on young people, especially taking them away from traditional social values and exposing them to all sorts of horrors.
"We estimate that there are at least 8,000 Satanic sects across the country with more than 600,000 members, and the numbers are growing all the time. That is why the Church is more than happy to help."
Don Benzi added: "Youngsters with their natural curiosity are especially attracted to the occult, and drugs are used to influence them and manipulate them."
A police spokesman in Rome said: "The department of public security decided that a group should be created to deal with the Satanism and sects in Italy.
"In several cases we have seen criminal activity including murder and sexual offences taking place."
Some, however, are not happy with the unit. Andrea Provera, who runs an occult shop in Turin, said: "We live in a lay state and a democracy so everyone is free to believe in what they want. If someone wants to worship their fridge because they are convinced it speaks, or they want to worship Satan, then that's their own business."
Civil rights groups have also expressed fears that the SAS may tackle the million Italians who belong to other minority religions who, even though they have strange practices and beliefs, are harmless.