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 treaties, including a concordat between the government and the Holy See, govern their relations.
Insults against religions or against their followers in public are considered an administrative offense punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($63-$380). The penal code punishes other public offenses to religion, such as offenses against objects used for religious rites or offenses expressed during religious ceremonies, with a fine of up to 5,000 euros ($6,100) or a prison sentence of up to two years. Those who destroy or violate objects used for religious ceremonies may be punished with up to two years in prison.
The constitution states all religious groups are equally free, and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups, including state support, are governed by agreements (“accords”) between them. Relations between the state and the Catholic Church are governed by a concordat between the government and the Holy See. 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. Twelve groups have an accord: The Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Church of Jesus Christ, Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, Italian Apostolic Church, Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.
The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities once they have completed the 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, an official request that includes 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. Once approved, the group must submit to MOI administrative monitoring, including oversight of its budget 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 cultural associations and obtain tax-exempt status, legal recognition of marriages, access to hospitals and prisons, and other benefits, but those benefits are more easily obtained if a group has an accord with the government. 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 of personal income tax set-aside on taxpayer returns. Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds.
National law does not restrict religious face coverings, but some local authorities impose restrictions. Regional laws in Liguria, Veneto, and Lombardy prohibit the wearing of burqas and niqabs in public buildings and institutions, including hospitals.
The concordat with the Holy See 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 both Catholics and non-Catholic religious groups. Government funding is available for only 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.
Schools are divided into “state-owned,” “state-equivalent,” and private categories. The “state equivalent” category includes public (municipal, provincial, regional, or owned by another public entity) and some private schools, which may be religiously affiliated. All state-equivalent schools receive government funding if they meet criteria and standards published every year by the Ministry of Education. The funding is released through the regional offices for education. Most private schools are run by religious entities and may not issue certificates or diplomas. Private school students must take final annual exams in “state-owned” or “state-equivalent” schools.
Since 2019, Lombardy regional law has prohibited local authorities from dividing burial plots by religious belief.
According to law, hate speech, including instances motivated by religious hatred, is punishable by up to four years in prison. This law also applies to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.
All missionaries and other foreign religious workers from countries that are not EU members or signatories of the Schengen Agreement must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country. An applicant must attach an invitation letter from his or her religious group to the application.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 8, the government temporarily banned public gatherings, including all religious services in all places of worship, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Following an April 26 statement by the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference rejecting the government measures as limiting religious freedom, the government allowed the Catholic Church to resume services outdoors starting May 10. The Catholic bishops highlighted the difference between the government’s responsibility “to adopt health provisions” and the Catholic Church’s “to organize activities of the Christian community in full autonomy, respecting the provisions decided [by the government].” On May 15, the government signed agreements with representatives of Muslim, Jewish, and other religious communities authorizing the resumption of religious services outdoors on May 18.
On February 10, a Rome court convicted 24 persons belonging to an association called Stormfront to up to three years and 10 months in prison for racial and ethnic hate speech, defamation, and threats against Jews, migrants, and some public figures. In 2011, the group had established a forum on the U.S. website of the same name promoting white nationalist and supremacist ideologies and published a list of Jewish communities, schools, shops, and restaurants, including addresses and telephone numbers, appealing to its members “to act as they like” based on that information.
Interviewed by Israeli daily Israel Ya-Yom on January 20, League Party leader Salvini stated that “the presence of large numbers of migrants coming from Muslim countries provokes an increase in anti-Semitism also in Italy.” The Union of the Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) issued a press statement expressing “concerns regarding Salvini’s statement, which ascribes the causes of social hate against minorities to Muslims and thus lays the ground for hate and Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism is equal to Islamophobia.” The UCOII’s press statement contained a list of types of discrimination that many Muslims faced, including difficulties in opening new places of worship.
On June 6, Member of Parliament Emanuele Fiano, a member of the Jewish community, announced in a Facebook post that he had received an envelope containing an image of Adolf Hitler and subtitled “In the Oven.”
On February 6, the President of the Senate appointed 25 members to an extraordinary committee to fight intolerance, anti-Semitism, and hate crimes, as proposed by Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre and approved by parliament in 2019.
According to the FIEP’s legal counsel, because relations between the government and the country’s Jews are governed by an accord between the state and UCEI, the UCEI defined the terms of Jewish identity and practice in the country. According to the counsel, the growth of progressive Judaism in the country continued to encounter resistance from the largely orthodox UCEI. For example, the UCEI continued not to recognize progressive Jewish rabbis, who were therefore ineligible for Italian visas and residence permits, could not perform marriages having civil validity, and whose congregations were ineligible for government financial benefits.
On December 30, parliament passed the budget law for 2021 that amended a 1955 law on compensation to Holocaust survivors, Jewish victims of persecution, and their heirs to facilitate access to a 500 euro ($610) per month government benefit. The amendment simplified procedures to obtain the benefit, easing the requirement of proving that discrimination occurred. The budget law also allotted 6.5 million euros ($7.98 million) to modify a shopping center project in Mantua, including changes solicited by Jewish rabbis to prevent desecration of a Jewish cemetery there. The Jewish community had lobbied for both provisions in the budget.
According to leaders of the Rome Islamic Cultural Center, the government again did not make significant progress on an accord despite ongoing dialogue with Muslim religious communities. The MOI continued to recognize as a legal religious entity only the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which administers the Great Mosque of Rome. The government recognized other Muslim groups only as nonprofit organizations.
Regional governments and Muslim religious authorities continued to recognize five mosques, one each in Colle Val d’Elsa (in Tuscany), Milan, and Rome, and two in the Emilia-Romagna Region, in Ravenna and Forli, respectively. In addition, local governments continued to recognize many sites as Muslim places of worship, although these were not considered full-fledged mosques by Muslim authorities because they lacked minarets or other key architectural features.
According to weekly magazine Panorama, there were also an estimated 800 to 1,200 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims in 2019 (the most recent figure), known colloquially as “garage” mosques. According to the press, authorities allowed most to operate, but they did not officially recognize them as places of worship.
According to media reports, Muslim leaders stated they had difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits.
On October 14, the Association of Muslims of Bergamo, Lombardy Region, announced a judge had ruled that the regional government’s acquisition in 2018 of a former chapel that the association intended to turn into a mosque was discriminatory and the chapel should be returned to the Muslim community. The Muslim community bought the chapel at auction in 2018 from the main public hospital in Bergamo, which was owned by regional authorities. After the purchase, the governor, a member of the League Party, required the association to sell it back under a law allowing public authorities to buy assets deemed to be of cultural significance.
On July 1, the Lombardy Regional Administrative Court ruled that the municipality of San Giuliano Milanese excessively limited the constitutional principle of religious freedom after it denied in 2019 the use of two separate venues by a Muslim community and an evangelical Christian church. Following the ruling, the Muslim and evangelical Christian communities were able to use their sites as places of worship.
On July 15, the lawyer of Abu Hanif Patwery, president of the Bangladesh Cultural and Welfare Association, announced the European Court for Human Rights had ruled as admissible Patwery’s appeal against a 2019 conviction for violating Milan city regulations. Patwery was convicted because his group contracted a company to convert a storage site into a place of worship without prior local government approval. His lawyer argued that the conviction violated freedom of religion because the Lombardy region, including Milan, had adopted laws that de facto prevented Muslims from building new mosques. The Court of Cassation had sentenced him in 2019 to six months in prison and the payment of a 9,000-euro ($11,000) fine, the first time that a court imposed criminal rather than administrative penalties for this type of violation. Both the sentence and the fine were suspended following the appeal.
On September 14, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ruled that the 2019 order by the municipality of Monfalcone blocking the conversion of a former supermarket into a mosque was legitimate. The municipality had concluded that the building was inappropriate for religious services due to structural reasons. A local Muslim association had purchased the facility in 2017 and requested authorization to reconvert it into a mosque in 2019.
On November 26, the city of Pisa decided not to appeal a July 1 ruling by the Tuscany regional administrative court which annulled city council plans in 2019 to prevent the Pisa Islamic Association from building a mosque on land it had purchased. Pisa city officials had stated at the time that the lot was not large enough for the planned building, while a local imam said the city council had always been hostile to the mosque’s construction. On September 24, the local office for the preservation of cultural and environmental assets approved the mosque’s construction, rejecting an appeal by Mayor Michele Conti. Construction had not begun by year’s end.
According to media, on August 3, the MOI expelled an Egyptian imam in San Dona di Piave, near Venice, for expressing extremist views in his sermons. In a statement, the MOI said the imam “was a follower of an Islamic religious orientation based on orthodox Salafism” and also had ties to extremist elements.
In January, the MOI announced that for reasons of state security it had deported a Moroccan imam back to his home country because of what it said was his support for ISIS and its leadership.
On February 7, the Milan City Council published a zoning plan authorizing two Buddhist temples, seven evangelical Christian churches, three Orthodox churches, four Islamic places of worship (a designation determined by Islamic authorities in the country), and seven Catholic churches. Only places of worship authorized in the zoning plan have legal status; the new places of worship would be in addition to 25 existing places of Islamic and approximately 100 evangelical Christian churches in Milan.
On September 20, the Forza Nuova (New Force) association, commonly characterized as far-right, staged a rally against the establishment of a temporary facility to host Muslim worshippers in an area used as parking lot in Milan. Both the League Party and New Force opposed the decision to establish the temporary facility to celebrate Eid al-Adha.
Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to non-Muslim 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.
On June 3, a member of the municipal council of Fiumicino, Senator William De Vecchis, publicly opposed a local Bangladeshi Muslim association’s proposal to establish an Islamic cemetery with up to 16,000 burial places because it did not take in account other local citizens’ wishes and he did not want his municipality to bury Muslims from other municipalities.
In June, Catholic bishops challenged proposed legislation that would include sexual orientation, gender identity, as well as gender-based hate crimes and hate speech under an existing law that makes discrimination, violence, or incitement to violence based on someone’s race or religion a crime punishable by up to four years in prison. The bishops stated the proposed legislation could criminalize the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. The president of the Conference of Italian Bishops, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, said the bill would limit “personal freedom, educational choices, the way of thinking and being, the exercise of criticism and dissent,” adding that “there are already adequate safeguards with which to prevent and repress any violent or persecutory behavior” towards sexual minorities. The bill was approved by the Chamber of Deputies in November and was awaiting Senate action at year’s end.
In September, some leaders of the Italian Evangelical Alliance expressed their longstanding concerns regarding the 2012 opinion of the Council of State on the implementation of the 1929 law on religious freedom requested by the government. In particular, the alliance objected to the council’s recommendation to recognize only the ministers of religious groups meeting two criteria: reliability and morality, and having a community of at least 500 followers. The alliance representatives said they considered this requirement discriminatory against minority religions whose communities had a limited number of members.
Politicians from several parties, including the League Party, Brothers of Italy, and Casa Pound, a political association widely considered to be far-right, again made statements critical of Islam.
In a January interview with Israeli daily Israel Hayon regarding anti-Semitism in Europe, League Party leader Salvini said “the massive presence of migrants coming from Muslim countries is spreading anti-Semitism in Italy as well.” In July, in response to Turkey’s plans to reconvert the Hagia Sophia Museum, which was a church until 1453 and a mosque from 1453 until 1935, back to a mosque, Salvini said in a tweet “the arrogance of certain types of Islam is incompatible with the values of democracy, freedom, and tolerance of the West.”
Authorities investigated instances of hate speech against Silvia Romano, an Italian aid worker kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kenya in 2018 and released in May. Romano converted to Islam during her captivity. On May 13, League Party MP Alessandro Pagano referred to her as “a new terrorist, because al-Shabaab [is a terrorist organization].” Chamber of Deputies Vice President Mara Carfagna immediately censured his comment, stating that “it is unacceptable to characterize Silvia Romano as a terrorist [in this assembly].”
On April 17, the Court of Cassation ruled against the city of Milan for prohibiting the Union of Atheists, Agnostics, and Rationalists from circulating materials on the grounds that it would have offended all religions. The court stated that “10 million Italians have a good life without God.” The court reiterated the need to respect not only all faiths but also the right not to embrace any faith and the freedom of conscience, to include the right to promote atheism.
On September 12, the Casa Pound and New Force groups organized a rally in Milan during which Veneto Fronte Skinhead leader Stefano Odorico spoke about the “Islamic danger,” concluding that “there will be one day in which we will off the invaders of our country.”
On January 27, Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony to commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and stressed the need to remain vigilant against “the virus of discrimination, hate, abuse of power, and racism.”
On January 27, Mayor Virginia Raggi organized a commemoration in Rome to honor two Holocaust survivors and stated that “preserving the memory helps build a better future and avoid the mistakes of the past.”
The city of Rome continued to foster collaboration among the Jewish community, Waldensian Evangelical Church, the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, and the Italian Buddhist Union to promote better understanding and awareness of different faiths, primarily among students. Cultural events and presentations in public schools to increase awareness of religious diversity were significantly reduced compared with previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.