ROME (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI said Saturday that all human life must be protected, especially that of the weak and suffering, making a last-minute intervention in a right-to-die case that has convulsed Italy.

Groups of protesters – both for and against keeping Eluana Englaro alive – held demonstrations across the country on Saturday. Outside the clinic in the northern city of Udine where Englaro is being cared for, a few dozen people shouted “Eluana Viva!” or “Eluana Lives!”

Englaro, 38, has been in a vegetative state for 17 years after a car crash. On Friday, after a decade-long court battle, her nutrition began to be reduced in preparation for removing her feeding tubes, which her father has said was her wish.

Benedict didn’t refer by name to Englaro in his message Saturday for the annual World Day of the Sick. But the pope said he wanted to reaffirm with vigor “the absolute and supreme dignity of every human being,” even when “weak and shrouded in the mystery of suffering.”

In a bid to keep Englaro alive, Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government passed an emergency decree Friday saying that feeding and hydration cannot be suspended for patients who depend on it.

But in an unusual confrontation between Italy’s top officials, President Giorgio Napolitano refused to sign the decree, saying it defied court rulings that allowed Englaro’s feeding tubes to be removed.

The government now plans to bring a proposed bill to parliament, where Berlusconi’s forces have a majority, to make the decree law. The chambers are expected to take up the issue Monday, but it wasn’t clear if the bill could be passed in time.

If it passes, Napolitano could ask parliament to reconsider. But if both houses approve it unchanged a second time, it will become law.

Two years after her 1992 car crash, doctors said Englaro’s condition was irreversible. This week, Englaro, from the northern Italian city of Lecco, was moved to the La Quiete clinic in Udine that agreed to gradually stop feeding her.

The transfer set off a firestorm, with last-ditch appeals from anti-euthanasia groups and Catholic Church officials to keep her alive. On Saturday, several rallies were held in cities across the country both in favor and against the government’s efforts.

In Rome, about 200 people massed in front of Berlusconi’s office to protest his intervention. “Trust a father’s love: Stop Berlusconi,” read one poster.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, who heads the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, said refusing food and water to Englaro was nothing less than “homicide.”

“A light is going out, the light of a life,” he wrote in Saturday’s edition of the bishops’ newspaper Avvenire. “And Italy is darker.”

Italy does not allow euthanasia. Patients have a right to refuse treatment, but there is no law that allows them to give advance directions on what treatment they wish to receive if they become unconscious.

The Englaro case has drawn comparisons with that of Terri Schiavo, the American woman at the center of a right-to-die debate until her death in 2005.

Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed in March 2005. Congress passed a bill to allow a federal court to review the Florida woman’s case, and then-President George W. Bush returned from his Texas ranch to sign the bill into law. A federal judge refused to order the tube reinserted, a decision upheld by a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court.

AP-ES-02-07-09 1334EST

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