Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law regardless of religion and are free to profess their beliefs in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality. According to the constitution, each religious community has the right to establish its own institutions according to its own statutes as long as these do not conflict with the law. The constitution stipulates the state may not impose special limitations or taxes on the establishment or activities of groups because of their religious nature or aims. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent of each other, and their relations are governed by treaties, which include a concordat between the government and the Holy See.
The law considers insults against any divinity to be blasphemy, a crime punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($58-$350). The government generally does not enforce the law against blasphemy.
The constitution states all religious groups are equally free and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups are governed by law based on agreements (“accords”) between them. Representatives of a non-Catholic faith requesting an accord must first submit their request to the Office of the Prime Minister. The government and the group’s representatives then negotiate a draft agreement, which the Council of Ministers must approve. The prime minister then signs and submits the agreement to parliament for final approval. Once parliament approves the implementing legislation, the accord governs the relationship between the government and the religious group, including state support. Twelve groups have an accord: the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Italian Apostolic Church, the Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.
The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities, as long as they have completed a registration process with the MOI. Legal registration is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government. A religious group may apply for registration by submitting to a prefect, the local representative of the MOI, a request including the group’s statutes; a report on its goals and activities; information on its administrative offices; a three-year budget; certification of its credit status by a bank; and certification of the Italian citizenship or legal residency of its head. To be approved, a group’s statutes must not conflict with the law. If approved, the group must submit to MOI monitoring, including of their budgets and internal organization. The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities. Religious groups that are not registered may still operate legally as NGOs and obtain tax-exempt status, legal recognition of marriages, access to hospitals and prisons, and other benefits, but having an accord with the government facilitates the process. The Catholic Church is the only legally recognized group exempted from MOI monitoring, in accordance with the concordat between the government and the Holy See.
An accord grants clergy 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. Any religious group without an accord may request these benefits from the MOI on a case-by-case basis. An accord also allows a religious group to receive funds collected by the state through a voluntary 0.8 percent set-aside on taxpayer returns. Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds. The government set aside 1.23 billion euros ($1.41 billion) via this mechanism during the year, of which more than 81 percent went to the Catholic Church.
Veneto regional legislation prohibits the use of burqas and niqabs in public institutions such as hospitals.
The concordat provides for the Catholic Church to select teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in weekly “hour of religion” courses taught in public schools. The courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend may study other subjects or, in certain cases, leave school early with parental consent. Church-selected instructors are lay or religious, and the instruction includes material determined by the state and relevant to non-Catholic religious groups. Government funding is available only for these Catholic Church-approved teachers. If a student requests a religion class from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must provide the teacher and cover the cost of instruction; it is not required to seek government approval for the content of the class. Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private, religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.
According to law, hate speech, including instances motivated by religious hatred, are punishable by up to four years in prison. The law applies to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.
All missionaries and other foreign religious workers from countries that are not European Union members or signatories to the Schengen Agreement must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Although in 2017 the government had reportedly negotiated draft agreements governing its relations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romanian Orthodox Church, and Episcopal Church, it continued its negotiations with those groups during the year and again did not submit any agreements to parliament for approval.
According to leaders of the Rome Islamic Cultural Center, the government did not make significant progress on an accord in its dialogue with Muslim religious communities. The MOI legally recognized as a religious entity only the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which ran the Great Mosque of Rome. The government recognized other Muslim Islamic groups only as nonprofit organizations.
Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. There were five mosques regional governments and Muslim religious authorities both recognized, one each in Ravenna, Rome, Colle Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, Milan, and Forli in Emilia-Romagna. In addition, there were many sites recognized as places of worship by local governments but not considered fully-fledged mosques by Muslim authorities because they lacked minarets or other key architectural features. There were more than 800 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims, known colloquially as “garage” mosques. Authorities tolerated most of these but did not officially recognize them as places of worship.
On March 12, the Latium regional court ordered the closure of a garage mosque in Rome on the grounds that the venue was only authorized to host a workshop. The Muslim community that worshipped in the garage mosque initiated talks with local authorities to identify a viable alternative. At year’s end authorities had not identified such a venue.
On July 15, the local Muslim community in Empoli, Tuscany inaugurated a new place of worship with a capacity of 250 worshippers. While local government authorities had issued a permit for use of the venue as a place of worship, both they and Muslim religious authorities stated it did not meet all requirements of a proper mosque, such as having a minaret.
Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite a lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits. Although municipalities could and did withhold construction permits for other religious groups, Muslim leaders – for example, Rosario Paquini Shaykh, Deputy Chairman of the Islamic Center of Milan and Lombardy – said the shortage of formal places of worship was most acute for Muslims.
On June 6, Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala presented a plan on religious infrastructure proposing the regularization of four existing Muslim places of worship that lacked legal status and the allocation of an additional 18 sites to non-Catholic religious groups. The city was to assign three of these to evangelical churches, and two to Coptic Orthodox churches. In addition, the city was to assign six sites to the Catholic Church to establish churches in newly built neighborhoods. Information as to the implementation of the plan was unavailable at year’s end.
Local politicians from conservative parties, including Jacopo Alberti, a Lombardy Regional Councilor of the League Party, expressed concerns over Muslim community proposals to build new mosques. On September 11, League members of the Lombardy Regional Council and other center-right parties passed a motion urging the regional government to conduct a census of Islamic places of worship, install camcorders in them, and monitor the texts used and sermons delivered therein. The same regional council members joined with members of the Five Star Movement, a political party, to pass a resolution calling on the regional government to adopt a law prohibiting the regularization of existing unauthorized places of worship. Neither resolution was binding on the Lombardy government.
On October 8, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy accepted an appeal by the Muslim community of Varese of a denial of a permit to build a mosque in Sesto Calende. The regional court issued a ruling that did not overturn the denial but requested the Constitutional Court to re-examine the constitutionality of a 2015 amendment to a local law that did not impose any deadline on local authorities to decide where religious communities might open a place of worship. According to the Lombardy court, the lack of a deadline might violate “the right of freedom of religion” guaranteed by the constitution. At year’s end the Supreme Court had not decided whether to hear the case on the constitutionality of the local law.
On March 10, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy annulled the 2017 decision of the City Council of Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan, blocking the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque on the grounds that the center did not comply with all the requirements agreed to by the city council and the Muslim community. In April local authorities appealed the regional court’s ruling to the Council of State (Italy’s highest administrative court), which conducted a preliminary review of the case on August 1 but postponed a final ruling until 2019. At year’s end the construction of the cultural center and mosque remained suspended pending resolution of the case.
In October, according to press reports, League leaders denied the Bergamo Muslim Association permission to purchase a chapel in Bergamo at auction, despite theirs being the highest offer. The group outbid the Romanian Orthodox Church, which had been using the building for religious services. Lombardy President and League official Attilio Fontana said the Lombardy Region would exercise its right of first refusal and acquire the chapel instead. Fontana said there would be no appeal. League leader Salvini said in a statement, “Centuries of history risk disappearing if Islamization, which up until now has been underestimated, gains the upper hand.”
On August 27, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy upheld the September 2017 order of the Mayor of Cantu, Edgardo Arosio, (League Party), barring worship in a warehouse bought by a Muslim association, Assalam, in 2017. According to the ruling, the association had stated that it would only carry out cultural activities in the facility, but the court verified unauthorized religious activities had taken place.
On July 31, Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola issued a decree granting a Muslim association the right to use a piece of land, on which it had already established an Islamic cultural center, for 99 years. Leading League politicians, such as League head Salvini, opposed the decision. On social media, Salvini called the mayor’s decision “crazy.”
A request for authorization to construct a new mosque the Muslim community in Pisa submitted to the local administration in December 2017 remained pending with Pisa authorities at year’s end. The Muslim community submitted the request after the city’s former mayor refused to hold a referendum on the matter.
Pursuant to a December 2017 agreement between the local Muslim community and the City of Florence, Florence University, and the Catholic Church on the construction of a new mosque in Sesto Fiorentino, the Catholic Church sold a piece of land to the Muslim association to establish a mosque next to a new center for religious activities that the diocese would build. At year’s end, however, the local Muslim community had not built the mosque and was operating in a temporary place of worship.
The mosque the Muslim community of Thiene had been building since receiving a building permit in 2015 from the Veneto regional government remained unfinished, reportedly because of insufficient funds.
At year’s end the city of Mestre had not authorized the Muslim community to open a new mosque there as the city pledged to do after the municipal government, citing a lack of permits, closed down a garage mosque in April 2017.
Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship. Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.
In June the government sponsored the visit by a group of 50 Moroccan theologians and imams to more than 50 Muslim congregations in the Piedmont Region to discuss religious education and ways for Muslim immigrants to interact with, and integrate into, local society while preserving Muslim values. The Moroccan Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Turin-based Italian Islamic Confederation trained the visiting clerics, in cooperation with the MOI and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The visit concluded with a Quran recitation contest in Turin.
Politicians from several political parties, including the League, Brothers of Italy, and CasaPound, again made statements critical of Islam. On February 7, League leader Salvini said, “The problem with Islam is that it is a law, not a religion, and is incompatible with our values, rights, and freedoms.” On February 8, Giorgia Meloni, president of the Brothers of Italy Party, concurred with Salvini, adding on social media, “We can’t deny there is a process of Islamization going on in Europe. Islam is incompatible with our values, civilization, and culture.” Al Jazeera reported that during the campaign for the March parliamentary election Salvini said, “Islam is incompatible with the constitution.” The news service cited Mohamed Ben Mohamed, Imam of al-Huda in Centocelle, one of the largest unrecognized mosques in Rome, as stating, “During the election campaign, Salvini said he would close mosques and not allow any new ones to open….There’s no regulation for places of worship, the law remains vague, and every municipality interprets it its own way.”
As chair of the OSCE during the year, the country hosted several events promoting religious and ethnic tolerance. In January it hosted a conference on combating anti-Semitism that brought together representatives from government, civil society, and religious communities from across Europe. Conference participants agreed to strengthen their efforts to combat anti-Semitism throughout the continent through government-led public information campaigns, interfaith dialogue, and greater security measures for Jewish communities. To commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony in which he stressed the need to remain vigilant against the return of “the ghosts of the past.” On January 18 and 19, Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli accompanied a group of 100 students to visit Auschwitz in cooperation with the Union of Italian Jewish communities (UCEI).
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.