International Religious Freedom Report 2008

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report. There is no state religion; however, the Roman Catholic Church enjoys some privileges, stemming from its sovereign status and its historical political authority, not available to other religious groups. The Catholic Church's influential role in society led to controversy when church teachings appeared to influence Catholic legislators on matters of public policy.

There were occasional reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. There were reports of societal anti-Semitism, as well as reports of discrimination and harassment of Muslims; however, prominent social leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom. Some antiimmigrant sentiment has accompanied increasing immigration. For the country's many Muslim immigrants, religion has further differentiated them from native-born citizens.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom 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 59.1 million. An estimated 87 percent of native-born citizens are nominally Catholic, but only 20 percent regularly participate in worship services. Other 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. Non-Catholic Christian groups, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha'is, and Buddhists constitute less than 5 percent of the population and, with the exception of Jews, are mainly foreign-born. Immigration, both legal and illegal, continues to add large numbers of non-Christian residents, mainly Muslims, from North Africa, South Asia, Albania, and the Middle East. The Ministry of Interior reports that there are 258 places of Islamic worship (mainly "garage" mosques) and 628 Islamic associations concentrated in Lombardy, Veneto, Lazio, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany. The Jewish community is estimated at 30,000 and maintains synagogues in 21 cities. The most recent data indicate that approximately 14 percent of the population identifies itself as either atheist or agnostic. (Numbers do not add up to 100 percent because of overlapping categories.)

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

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. The Catholic Church's influential role in society led to controversy when church teachings appeared to influence Catholic legislators on matters of public policy.

The Government provides funds for the construction of places of worship as well as 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 can 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 accord 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 accord may provide for state routing of funds, through a voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns, to that community. The absence of an accord does not affect a religious group's ability to worship freely; however, the privileges granted by an accord are not always granted automatically, and a religious community without an accord does not benefit financially from the voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns.

Groups with an accord 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, Mormons, Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, and Hindus. On the same date, the Government also amended previous accords with the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches and the Adventists. Early elections were called for April 13 and 14, 2008, and the new Government must submit the amended accords to Parliament for ratification before the accords may take effect. It had not done so as of the end of the reporting period. Negotiations have been suspended with the Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist organization, pending its reorganization. Divisions among the country's Islamic organizations, as well as the existence of multiple Muslim immigrant groups, have hindered that community's efforts to sign an accord.

The revised 1984 concordat 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 as well. Finding qualified instructors may prove difficult in small communities where information about other religious groups and the number of non-Catholics is 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.

The Catholic Church's influential role in society led to controversy when church teachings appeared to influence Catholic legislators on matters of public policy, such as on gay rights, euthanasia, and abortion. The law provides doctors with the right to refuse to perform abortions on ethical grounds. Abortion became an issue in the run-up to the April 2008 parliamentary election when the Church criticized the medical association's support of elements of the law that make abortion possible under certain circumstances.

Article 724 of the Criminal Code refers to "insult to religion," a minor offense; however, in 1995 the Constitutional Court declared the reference of Article 724 to the "state religion" discriminatory and unconstitutional. The law was modified to apply to insults to all religious groups.

Muslim women are free to wear a veil in public offices and schools; however, a 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 2 years in jail and fines up to $2,620 (€2,000), an increase from $1,310 (€1,000). Persons are also forbidden from hiding their identities under a seldom-used 1931 law.

On June 15, 2007, the Government published in the official gazette a charter of shared values for citizenship and integration prepared by the Minister of the Interior and presented to the 16-member Islamic Consultative Council.

The "Inter-Ministerial Commission for Combating Anti-Semitism" is tasked with ensuring strong, uniform responses to any anti-Semitic acts by the police and local or federal government officials.

Missionaries or religious workers must apply for appropriate visas prior to arriving in the country.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report; however, some Muslim groups reported being unable to construct mosques.

Plans are underway for an enlarged Islamic Center in Milan, although complications with building permits continued to delay construction to the frustration of the local Muslim community. On April 29, 2008, the mayor of Bologna suspended plans for the construction of a new mosque on the ground that the promoters did not satisfy construction requirements. In particular, they were unable to identify adequate sources of funding and to create a foundation responsible for its activities, independent from the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII), a network of mosques and Muslim communities, which he alleged was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, although some members of UCOII denied any formal affiliation.

Both elected and nonelected members of the Northern League political party, a minority member of the governing coalition, 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, made the values of many Muslim immigrants incompatible with the values necessary for integration into society.

Some Muslims have expressed hurt because they are forced to meet in "garage mosques," buildings that are converted from former uses, although this situation was attributable, in part, to the lack of an accord between the Muslim community and the Government. There were only two large mosques for the country's 1.2 million Muslims, one in Rome and one in Milan.

On January 9, 2008, the Ministry of Interior expelled the Moroccan imam of Turin, Kohaila Mohammed, accusing him of preaching anti-Western extremism and having been in contact with violent jihad militants. On May 31, 2007, the Constitutional Court agreed to review the 2005 deportation of a former imam of Turin, Bouriki Boukta, as requested by an administrative tribunal; he claimed that the accusation of hate crimes is groundless. 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, former Justice Minister Mastella said the crucifix was a symbol of traditional Italian culture and values and therefore could be displayed in public buildings. On February 21, 2008, courts condemned a judge to 1 year's imprisonment and barred him from holding office for having failed to perform his duties after his 2006 refusal to preside in a courtroom where a crucifix was displayed.

On January 30, 2008, a local police officer in Catania appealed the ruling of a civil court stating a crucifix and a statue of Mary could be displayed in public offices. In 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 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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

On April 14, 2008, for the first time in the country’s history, two members of the Jewish community and the president of a Federation of Moroccan Women were elected to Parliament.

On January 27, 2008, national, regional, and local authorities held annual educational initiatives and other events organized to support National Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 2008, the Government organized a national competition called "Youth and the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust)," open to students of all schools who submitted projects on the Holocaust.

The mosque in the municipality of Colle Val d'Elsa near Florence was undergoing expansion after the February 8, 2007 approval of the Muslim community's request, despite continued vocal opposition by the Northern League political party and others.

The Office for Combating Racial and Ethnic Discrimination continued to operate a hotline to receive complaints and supports 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 affiliation, belief, or practice. The Youth Council for Religious and Cultural Pluralism (established in 2006 by the Minister of Youth and the Minister of Interior) continued to foster integration between different communities and promote harmonious coexistence. On March 9, 2008, the Council released a "Letter on the value of dialogue" and met with representatives of religious communities based in Venice.

On May 4, 2008, Foreign Affairs Minister D'Alema openly criticized former Minister Calderoli for wearing a T-shirt with cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. On September 13, 2007, Social Affairs Minister Ferrero called for respect for religious beliefs and apologized to Muslims for Calderoli's statements after he threatened to desecrate the parcel of land where a new mosque was planned in Bologna.

While Catholicism is no longer the state religion, its role as the dominant religion occasionally leads observers to see a conflict of interest with the state or an attempt at governmental imposition of Catholic beliefs on non-Catholics. For example, on May 12, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI openly criticized a law legalizing abortion enacted in 1978 for having made it more difficult to promote and defend the value of life. He also urged followers to pressure the Government to adopt legislation in favor of families based on marriage between a man and a woman. Some Italian politicians criticized the Pope for inappropriate interference in domestic affairs by a foreign religious leader. On January 17, 2008, a small but vociferous number of students and faculty at Rome’s La Sapienza University peacefully marched in protest against the Catholic Church and the Pope’s alleged interference in Italian legislation on euthanasia, gay rights, and abortion, after apparently causing the Pope to cancel his visit to give a speech there. Other students and faculty supported the Pope's visit and cheered while the speech was read in his absence. Many considered it a violation of free speech that the Pope was pressured to cancel his address by a minority of faculty and students who disagreed with his views.

On November 13, 2007, courts sentenced the father and two brothers-in-law of a 20-year-old Pakistani Muslim immigrant woman killed in a so-called 2006 honor killing to 30 years' imprisonment.

Nonelected members of the Northern League political party, a minority member of the governing coalition, continuedto criticize Islamic society as well as immigrants, many of whom are Muslim (see Section II and the 2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices). Muslims expressed fear of using public transportation and reported a hostile atmosphere in schools, while indigenous Italians were reported to be afraid to take buses at night or walk near illegal immigrants' encampments.

On April 10 and 16, 2008, police arrested Roberto Sandalo and Maurizio Peruzzi, two convicted terrorists, for allegedly perpetrating seven attacks against Islamic places of worship in Lombardy in 2007. On February 3, 2008, an explosive device blew up in Milan's Via Quaranta near a mosque. On February 1, 2008, a bomb exploded near a mosque in Salerno province and caused injuries to a man who was inside.

A January 23, 2008 visit by a Muslim leader to Rome's main synagogue, in reciprocation for the 2006 visit of Rome's Chief Rabbi to Rome's mosque, was cancelled and has not been rescheduled.

On October 9, 2007, during a meeting with Anti-Defamation League (ADL) members, then Justice Minister Mastella affirmed the dangers of anti-Semitism as an ideology and pledged his Government's willingness to fight against and prevent anti-Semitic acts in the country and elsewhere in Europe. This pledge followed a May 8, 2007 survey commissioned by the ADL, which found that 48 percent of citizens 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 expressed strong support for government intervention to fight anti-Semitism; however, 46 percent felt that "Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust."

On March 19, 2008, ADL asked the editors of Il Manifesto, a newspaper associated with the Italian Communist Party, to apologize for a caricature that depicted a Jewish candidate for parliament with Fascist insignia.

On February 8, 2008, a "blacklist" of 162 Jewish professors teaching at a Rome university was posted on a website with comments stating the university "has been manipulated by an ethnic minority that is culturally loyal to an extraterritorial entity such as Israel." Representatives of all political parties unanimously condemned the episode.

On January 8, 2008, a far-left political leader, supported by others, protested the decision to choose Israel as the guest country for the 2008 Turin Book Fair. Many in the Jewish community saw the episode as anti-Semitic because of the tone and some statements by those who objected to the choice. The great majority of national political leaders, including the former president of the Chamber and former president of the Communist Renewal party, opposed the protest and expressed solidarity with Israel and the board of the Turin Book Fair.

On October 12, 2007, authorities in the north arrested members of a neofascist group who traveled to the German concentration camp of Dachau and posed for photographs, subsequently published in an investigative weekly newspaper, in which they gave the Nazi salute. The members of the group were sentenced to 12 to 30 months in jail but were freed before the end of October.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

The U.S. Embassy implemented a robust program of Islamic outreach, including meetings with local Muslim communities, cultural events, an International Visitor Program for Muslims, and a conference on successful communication strategies adopted by American Muslim communities.

On March 13, 2008, the Embassy organized an event for the presentation of the State Department Global Anti-Semitism Report with representatives of the Jewish communities, attended by former Deputy Prime Minister Francesco Rutelli and current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The Embassy monitored discrimination and maintained contact with religious groups.

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