There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. There is no state religion; however, the Catholic Church enjoys some privileges, stemming from its sovereign status and its historical political authority, not available to other religious groups.
There were occasional reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. There were reports of societal anti-Semitism, especially graffiti, following the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, as well as reports of discrimination and harassment of Muslims; nevertheless, prominent religious and government officials continued to encourage mutual respect for religious differences.
The Catholic Church's influential role in society led to controversy when church teachings appeared to influence Catholic legislators on matters of public policy. Some anti-immigrant sentiment has accompanied increasing immigration. For the country's many Muslim immigrants, religion has served as an additional factor differentiating them from native-born citizens.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 116,347 square miles and a population of 58.7 million. An estimated 87 percent of native-born citizens are nominally Catholic, but only 20 percent regularly participate in worship services. Non-Catholic Christian groups, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha'i Faith, and Buddhists constitute less than 5 percent of the population. Significant Christian communities include Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assembly of God, the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and other small Protestant groups. Immigration--both legal and illegal--continues to add large groups of non-Christian residents, mainly Muslims, from North Africa, South Asia, Albania, and the Middle East. The Ministry of the Interior reports that there are 258 places of Muslim worship (mainly "garage" mosques) concentrated in Lombardy, Veneto, Lazio, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany. Latest estimates number the Jewish community at 30,000, maintaining synagogues in 21 cities. The most recent available data indicates that approximately 14 percent of the population identifies itself as either atheist or agnostic.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. The Government at all levels sought to protect this right in full and did not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.
The Government provides funds for the construction of places of worship, public land for their construction, and helps to preserve and maintain historic places of worship that shelter much of the country's artistic and cultural heritage.
Under the 1984 revision of the Concordat with the Catholic Church, the state is secular but maintains the practice of state support for religion, support that also could be extended, if requested, to non-Catholic confessions. In such cases, state support is to be governed by legislation implementing the provisions of an accord (intesa) between the Government and the religious confession. An intesa grants ministers of religion automatic access to state hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; allows for civil registry of religious marriages; facilitates special religious practices regarding funerals; and exempts students from school attendance on religious holidays. If a religious community so requests, an intesa may provide for state routing of funds, through a voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns, to that community. The absence of an intesa does not affect a religious group's ability to worship freely; however, the privileges granted by an intesa are not always granted automatically, and a religious community without an intesa does not benefit financially from the voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns.
Groups with an intesa include the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Adventists, Assembly of God, Jews, Baptists, and Lutherans. On April 4, 2007, the Government signed accords with the Buddhist Union, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, the Apostolic Church, the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, and the Hindus. On the same date, the Government also amended previous intese with the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches and the Adventists. The April 2007 new and amended intese have been submitted to Parliament for ratification, which is expected by the end of the year. Negotiations have been suspended with the Soka Gakkai, or Japanese Buddhists, pending their reorganization. Divisions among the country's Muslim organizations, as well as the existence of multiple Muslim immigrant groups, have hindered that community's efforts to seek an intesa.
The revised Concordat of 1984 accorded the Catholic Church certain privileges. For example, the Church is allowed to select Catholic teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in "hour of religion" courses taught in the public schools. Such courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend are free to study other subjects or, in certain cases, to leave school early. While in the past this instruction involved Catholic priests teaching catechism, church-selected instructors may now be either lay or religious, and their instruction is intended to include material relevant to non-Catholic religious groups. Problems may arise in small communities where information about other religious groups and the number of non-Catholics are limited. The Constitution prohibits state support for private schools; however, declining enrollment in Catholic schools has led Catholic Church officials, as operators of the country's most extensive network of private schools, to seek government aid.
Muslim women are free to wear the veil in public offices and schools; however, the 2005 antiterrorism decree doubled existing penalties for persons convicted of wearing attire such as a burqa (or a crash helmet) in order to hide their identity. Penalties were increased to two years in jail and fines increased to $2,620 (�2,000) up from $1,310 (�1,000). People are also forbidden to hide their identities under a seldom used 1931 law.
The "Inter-Ministerial Commission to Combat Anti-Semitism" is tasked with ensuring strong, uniform responses to any anti-Semitic acts by the police and local/federal government officials.
Missionaries or religious workers must apply for appropriate visas prior to arriving in the country.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Government policy and practice contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, some Muslim groups reported being unable to construct mosques for worship.
Plans are underway for an enlarged Islamic Center in Milan, although complications with building permits have continued to delay construction, to the frustration of the local Muslim community. Milan Deputy Mayor Riccardo De Corato was reported as saying in March 2007 that "a new mosque cannot be authorized."
On May 17, 2006, an administrative tribunal asked the Constitutional Court to consider the constitutionality of a law used to deport a Turin imam in 2005. At the end of the reporting period, the court had not issued its decision.
The continuing presence of Catholic symbols, such as crucifixes, in courtrooms, schools, and other public buildings, has drawn criticism and led to a number of lawsuits. On February 7, 2007, Justice Minister Mastella said that the crucifix was a symbol of traditional Italian culture and values and therefore could be displayed in public buildings. On January 30, 2007, a judge was sent to trial accused of failing to perform his duties after he refused to preside in a courtroom where a crucifix was displayed; he accused the Minister of Justice of religious prejudice for not allowing the display of a menorah. On July 5, 2006, a Muslim who threw a crucifix out of a window in his mother's room at a public hospital was acquitted because in 2005 the Constitutional Court, in a separate case, had declared the law criminalizing such an act to be unconstitutional as it pertained to only one faith. On February 15, 2006, the Council of State, the national appeals court for administrative cases, rejected a request made by a mother to remove crucifixes from her children's classrooms; the court determined that the presence of religious symbols in public buildings is not discriminatory as they epitomize high civil values.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
There were no reports of violent anti-Semitic attacks in the period covered by this report, but public opinion surveys indicated that anti-Semitism was growing in the country.
A survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2007 found that 48 percent of Italians thought that "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Italy." Forty-two percent thought that "Jews have too much power in the business world." Ninety-two percent of those interviewed expressed strong support for active government intervention to fight anti-Semitism; however, 46 percent felt that "Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust." The survey also showed that education and age were strongly correlated with anti-Semitic feelings, as those over age 65 and those who did not attend school past age 16 were more likely to harbor anti-Semitic feelings.
Government leaders routinely acknowledge and pay tribute to Jews victimized by the country's 1938 racial laws. In addition, the reconstitution of the Fascist party or openly advocating or defending Fascist ideology and its political and historical legacy, is illegal.
On June 15, 2007, after a temporary loosening of the house-arrest restrictions placed upon Captain Erich Priebke, a Nazi war criminal who participated in the massacre of 335 civilians in 1944, vandals signed graffiti with a swastika that welcomed him back to Rome. Swastika graffiti appeared in some cities after soccer matches. On July 11, 2006, neo-Nazis celebrating the country's World Cup victory in the Jewish quarter of Rome vandalized walls, doors, and vehicles with swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti. The Prime Minister and other politicians strongly condemned the incidents as "ignoble gestures of hate and intolerance."
During the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, Jewish citizens were sometimes held collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel. For example, the ADL reported that on July 28, 2006, in Livorno, vandals wrote graffiti roughly translating to "Israel is an evil state" on the walls of Jewish-owned businesses. The ADL also reported that on August 1, 2006, vandals damaged and painted swastikas on 20 shops in Rome. Fliers found at the shops, signed by the Armed Revolutionary Fascists, a neo-fascist group, denounced "the Zionist economy" and included pro-Hezbollah statements. Also in August the National Secretary of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) placed an advertisement in local newspapers comparing the alleged massacres committed by the Israeli armed forces in Lebanon to the massacres committed by the Nazis. Politicians, government officials, and the Minister of the Interior's Muslim advisory board, the Islamic Consulta, (except for the UCOII member) condemned the statement.
There were no arrests in the May 16, 2006, vandalizing of 40 Jewish graves (of approximately 6 thousand) in Milan. Vandals knocked over and broke tombstones, but there were no signs of anti-Semitic slogans or Nazi symbols. Leaders of both the center-left and center-right condemned the attack; Milan's Chief Rabbi called the incident serious and without precedent. The police opened an investigation and speculated in the press that the vandals might have been drunken revelers. The case was not resolved by the end of the reporting period.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
National, regional, and local authorities organize annual educational initiatives and other events to support National Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2007, such as the visit to Auschwitz of a group of 600 students accompanied by the Minister of Education and the Chief Rabbi of Rome.
On April 23, 2007, the Minister of the Interior presented to the 16-member Islamic Consultative Council, a proposed charter of shared values of citizenship and integration that would apply to all immigrants. At the end of the reporting period the approval process of the charter remained unfinished.
On February 8, 2007, the municipality of Colle Val d'Elsa approved the request of the Muslim community to expand a mosque near Florence despite continued criticism by the Northern League and others, who vocally opposed the plan.
In 2006 the Office to Combat Racial and Ethnic Discrimination received more than 10,000 phone calls. A total of 351 formal complaints were lodged, 218 of which were ultimately determined to be legitimate cases of discrimination. The office administers a hotline to receive complaints and a public relations effort to discourage ethnic, racial, and religious discrimination.
Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination
There were occasional reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice. Religious and government officials continued to encourage mutual respect for religious differences.
While Catholicism is no longer the state religion, its role as the dominant religion occasionally leads to claims of conflict of interest with the state or attempts at governmental imposition of Catholic beliefs on non-Catholics. For example, on May 12, 2007, some Catholic groups organized demonstrations to protest proposed legislation that dealt with civil unions for same-sex couples that allowed them to be eligible for insurance, pension, and inheritance benefits, but not for recognition as married. Interior Minister Amato publicly lamented that a policy debate was denigrating into rival street protests. The protests were in response to a March 28, 2007, condemnation of the legislation from the Italian Bishops' Conference which said the legislation undermined family values and urged Catholic parliamentarians to vote against it.
On November 20, 2006, in Ancona, a barman refused to serve an Italian customer of African origin asserting that he was free not to work for Muslims. The police charged and fined him for not serving all customers without discrimination.
On August 12, 2006, the body of a Muslim girl was found in the backyard of her parents' house. She was the victim of an "honor killing" by her Pakistani father in northern Italy for behavior he deemed unacceptable; the father was arrested and is awaiting trial.
During the 2006 election campaign, some Catholic politicians and community leaders contributed to popular reaction by emphasizing the perceived threat posed by immigrants to the country's "national identity."
Both elected and nonelected members of the Northern League political party, formerly a minority member of the governing coalition and currently represented in the Parliament, have asserted that practices and traditions present in many Islamic societies, notably polygamy, Islamic family law, the role of women, and the lack of separation between religion and state, rendered many Muslim immigrants incompatible for integration into society.
On March 13, 2006, Rome's Chief Rabbi paid a first-ever visit to Rome's main mosque; a reciprocal visit was discussed but did not take place by the end of the reporting period.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
The Mission implemented a robust program of Muslim outreach, including meetings with local Muslim communities, cultural music events, an active International Visitor Program for Muslims, and a successful conference on Muslim immigration and integration. Many of these events are intended to bring together native-born citizens and Muslims, often immigrants, in the hopes of building cross-cultural understanding and religious and ethnic tolerance.
The Embassy monitored discrimination, maintaining contact with religious groups, including Jewish groups, and met with representatives of the Baha'i and other faiths.