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. It 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 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 euros ($54) to 309 euros ($326). 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 the parliament approves the implementing legislation, the accord governs the relationship between the government and the religious group, including state support. Groups with an accord include the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Mormons, 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 recognition is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government. A religious group may apply for recognition of its legal status by submitting to a prefect, a 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 MOI is required to monitor the religious group. The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities. 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 Catholic Church received more than 80 percent of the total 1.24 billion euro ($1.3 billion) set aside by the government in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available.
On April 6, the regional council of Veneto adopted a law confining new places of worship to urban peripheries and introducing new requirements regarding the use of the Italian language in religious services, the availability of adequate parking spaces and bank guarantees, and approval by public referendum prior to construction. On September 27, the regional government of Liguria enacted similar legislation allowing municipalities to require prior authorization of construction of new places of worship, and to hold referenda to measure public opinion on the issue.
The law allows 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 can 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 teacher from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must cover the cost of instruction. Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.
Hate crimes, including those motivated by religious hatred, are punishable by up to four years in prison. On June 8, parliament approved a law codifying Holocaust denial as an aggravating circumstance in the prosecution of hate crimes, punishable with two to six years in prison and fines up to 6,000 euros ($6,300). The law applies also in case of denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.
All missionaries and other foreign religious workers must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country.
This country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
There was no progress in ongoing negotiations for accords between the government and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal Church. Through the end of the year, no Muslim groups had obtained an accord with the government or begun negotiations for one.
In a regular periodic review of the accord system published on November 2, the national Court of Audit noted the lack of checks on the use of funds the government provided to religious groups and the risk of discrimination against faiths that had not signed an accord with the government.
Following the decision of 30 French municipalities to ban the burkini swimsuit, in August former Interior Minister Angelino Alfano discounted the possibility of any such prohibition in Italy, citing the freedom of religion provided for in the constitution. Afterward, Vice President of the Senate Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Northern League Party, called for a new law banning both burqas and burkinis. On October 10, Roberto Maroni, the Northern League Governor of Lombardy, appealed to parliament to amend an existing law banning head coverings in public places for security reasons to include explicit prohibitions on burqas and niqabs. There were no reports of enforcement of a ban on garments impeding personal identification in public hospitals that the Lombardy government announced in late 2015.
On February 8, Florence Mayor Dario Nardella and Izzedin Elzir, a local imam and president of the Union of Italian Muslim Communities (the country’s largest Muslim organization), signed a first-of-its-kind agreement committing the local Muslim community to hold Friday religious ceremonies in the city in Italian. The agreement called for Arabic translation to be provided for those who did not understand Italian. It also specified mosques would be open to people of all faiths and provided for the establishment of booths in Muslim places of prayer to give information on local religious and cultural events.
Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. As of November there were four officially recognized mosques, one each in Ravenna, Rome, Colle Val D’Elsa, and Milan, but more than 800 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims. Local officials continued to cite a lack of zoning plans authorizing the establishment of places of worship on specific sites.
Some regional governments continued to impose restrictions on the construction of new places of worship. On February 24, the Constitutional Court ruled that a 2015 regional law introducing strict new construction requirements for religious buildings by unregistered religious groups in Lombardy was partially unconstitutional. The court declared some aspects of the law limited the freedom of religion of non-Catholic religious groups that had not signed an agreement with the national government, violating the principle of equality of all religious groups. The court upheld other parts of the regional law, recognizing the power of regional governments to adopt general rules (mostly related to urban planning) on places of worship.
Following the court’s February 24 ruling declaring parts of the Lombardy law unconstitutional, on March 31, the municipal government of Milan suspended the designation of three sites for the construction of two mosques and a Protestant church announced by the previous administration in August 2015, citing technical problems with one of the proposals and obstacles stemming from the portions of the regional law that remained in effect. On October 31, the Bangladesh Cultural and Welfare Association, which had been assigned one of the sites on which to build a mosque, submitted an appeal against the suspension to the Lombardy regional administrative court. On October 17, newly elected Mayor of Milan Giuseppe Sala told reporters that a new mosque might be built in two years based on new requirements, and indicated the municipality was considering allowing the construction of several smaller mosques instead of the two previously called for. On November 3, religious associations from a variety of faiths submitted 23 plans for the establishment of places of worship to Milan municipal authorities for approval.
The Veneto and Liguria laws placing restrictions on the construction of new places of worship drew widespread criticism. On April 5, the Catholic Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop Francesco Moraglia, said the Veneto law limited religious freedom. Representatives of the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, as well as the Union of Italian Muslim Communities, stated the initiatives were intended to block the construction of mosques. On September 26, Raffaella Paita, the Democratic Party leader in the Liguria regional council, called the law “misguided and unconstitutional,” saying, “it violates the right of Ligurian citizens to practice their own religion.”
Between July and September local authorities closed five of the 14 informal Muslim places of worship, commonly referred to as “garage mosques” (many function in spaces intended for use as garages) used by members of Rome’s Bangladeshi community, citing irregularities such as lack of construction permits or safety requirements. Community representatives organized public demonstrations, stating they had no legal means of establishing new places of worship. In October hundreds of Muslims in Rome held peaceful prayer protests against the closure of the five “garage” mosques, stating that the administrative reasons given for the closures, such as limited numbers of toilets, could have been addressed.
Local government officials in Rome met with community members to identify temporary and permanent facilities to use as place of worship and a cultural center. On May 31, soon after the Veneto law restricting unregistered religious groups from building houses of worship was enacted, the government filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court for review. The court had not issued a decision at year’s end.
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 August the local chapter of the Forward Italy (Forza Italia or FI) Party led a campaign against the construction of a mosque in Pisa, which the city council had provisionally approved. Provincial council member and FI member Gianluca Gambini said a poll showed that 57 percent of Pisa residents opposed it, and that people were aware that mosques were places with “a risk of radicalization.”
On January 19, then-Interior Minister Alfano announced the creation of a new “Council of Relations with Italian Islam,” an advisory body on the integration of Muslims in the country. The minister was quoted as saying Muslim members of the group would work towards “the formation of an Italian Islam “that would align the religion more with the country’s “Christian and humanist tradition.” Alfano said the council aimed to further integrate Muslim immigrants and prevent extremism by providing guidance on training and certification of imams and establishment of new mosques. The council met approximately once a month.
In comments to the Washington Post in December, the leader of the Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, spoke out against the immigration of Muslims to Italy saying, “The problem of the Muslim presence is increasingly worrying. There are more and more clashes, more and more demands and I doubt the compatibility of Italian law with Muslim law, because it’s not just a religion but a law.”
The government held a series of events in commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27. President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony in which he encouraged the public “to learn, investigate, study, reflect and prevent” intolerance, discrimination, and violence. On January 18 and 19, Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli accompanied a group of 100 students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in cooperation with the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.