ROME (Reuters) - The curious saga of Emmanuel Milingo, the archbishop who defected to the sect of the Rev Sun Myung Moon and married a Korean, turned even curiouser Friday when a spokesman said Milingo had returned to the Catholic fold.
"He has decided to return to our Church," said Maurizio Bisantis, an Italian who has been escorting Milingo around Rome since the Zambian archbishop's surprise return this week from New York and who has been acting as his spokesman.
Asked which Church he was referring to, Bisantis told Reuters: "Why our Church, the Catholic Church, of course. As of last night he has returned to the Church." The Vatican, which has put Milingo under threat of excommunication, said it knew nothing of the decision.
Bisantis said Milingo, already controversial as a faith healer and exorcist, had gone on a spiritual retreat and would not resurface for about 15 or 20 days. He said Milingo was staying somewhere in Italy but would not say where.
Bisantis said Milingo's new wife, a Korean acupuncturist, was last seen at an airport hotel in Milan and that it was not clear whether she would be seeing her husband.
The Milingo saga has been one that would have made the late Italian director Federico Fellini, no stranger to fantasy tales bordering on the surreal, seem like a documentary maker.
Milingo told reporters Wednesday he was torn between his wife, his respect for sect leader Rev Sun Myung Moon and his loyalty to the pope.
The last time he was seen in public, the 71-year-old Zambian had said he hoped to have a second meeting with the pope on Friday. But Bisantis said that would not take place.
Milingo turned up unexpectedly in Rome Monday in an apparent mission to make amends with the Roman Catholic world, which he scandalized in May when he joined Moon's controversial Unification Church and married a bride chosen by Moon.
Moon, a Korean, is hailed as the Messiah by his followers but has been strongly criticized in several countries.
In Rome, Milingo has been wearing his bishop's episcopal ring on his right hand and what appears to be a wedding ring on his left. He has been wearing the dark suit of a bishop but, forswearing the usual white clerical dog collar, has preferred the open-necked green shirt of a tourist in a sweltering summer.
Last month, the Vatican read Milingo the religious riot act, telling him he risked excommunication if he did not leave his wife, sever links with Moon, and declare his fidelity to the pope and the Catholic Church's discipline of celibacy.
Excommunication is a total cutting off from the Catholic Church. In modern times it has been rare, particularly for high-ranking prelates.
The Vatican originally set a deadline of Aug. 20 for Milingo to make a decision but suspended the deadline this week after Milingo arrived in Rome and stirred up what is usually a deadly quiet August at the Vatican.
At one news conference, a reporter put himself in the awkward position of asking a man still technically an archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church if he had consummated his marriage blessed by a second "church" not recognized by the first.
The answer, which Milingo declined to give, could affect a solution to the strange, unprecedented dilemma into which he has thrown the Vatican.
Despite Milingo's trip to Rome, most observers believe his career in the Roman Catholic Church is essentially over following the spectacular way in which he joined Moon's church in New York and married.
Vatican sources said at the time that the pope felt hurt by Milingo's actions, because the pontiff had often been lenient with him when others in the Church felt he should be disciplined for unauthorized faith healing and exorcism.