Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

2010 Report on International Religious Freedom - Italy

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 17 November 2010
Cite as United States Department of State, 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom - Italy, 17 November 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4cf2d08f5f.html [accessed 22 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

[Covers the period from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010]

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 reporting period. There is no state religion; however, due to its sovereign status and historical political authority, the Roman Catholic Church enjoys some privileges not available to other religious groups.

There were occasional reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, as well as episodes of anti-Semitism. Prominent religious and government officials continued to encourage mutual respect for religious differences.

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 60.4 million. An estimated 87 percent of native-born citizens were Roman Catholic in 2009; however, according to an independent research institute, in 2010 only 24 percent regularly participated in Catholic worship services. Less than 5 percent of the population consists of members of non-Catholic Christian groups, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha'is, and Buddhists. Significant Christian communities include Christian Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, Assemblies 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 continued to add large groups of non-Christian residents, mainly Muslims, from North Africa, South Asia, Albania, and the Middle East. According to an independent research center, in 2008, 1.3 million immigrants were Christian Orthodox--coming mainly from Romania, Ukraine, and Russia--1.25 million were Muslim, 140,000 Protestant, and 100,000 Hindu or Buddhist.

There are reportedly more than 700 places of worship for Muslims, (often officially labeled "cultural centers" and unofficially called "garage" mosques), concentrated in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Lazio, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany. The Jewish community is an estimated 30,000 and maintains synagogues in 21 cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for 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 government recognizes the Holy See as a sovereign authority. Under the 1984 revision of the concordat with the Catholic Church, the state is secular but maintained the practice of state support for religion, which can also be extended to non-Catholic confessions if requested. In such cases, state support is governed by legislation implementing the provisions of an intesa (accord) between the government and the religious group. An intesa 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. 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 government did not always grant the intesa privileges automatically, and a religious community without an intesa did not benefit financially from the voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns.

The state paid Catholic religion teachers, but this financial support did not apply to other religious communities. If a student requested the assistance of a religion teacher of a non-Catholic religious group, that group can select a representative but must cover the cost.

Non-Catholic groups with an intesa include the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, and Lutherans. In 2007 the government signed draft accords with the Buddhist Union, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, and Hindus, and at the same time amended previous intese with the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches and the Adventists. On May 13, 2010, the council of ministers approved the 2007 new and amended intese and submitted them to parliament for ratification. Parliament did not vote on these intese during the reporting period. Negotiations remained suspended with the Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist group, pending their reorganization. Divisions among Muslim organizations, as well as the lack of a single leader to represent them at the national level, hindered that community's efforts to seek an intesa.

The law provides all religious groups the right to be recognized as a legal entity and be granted fiscal exempt status. Insults against all divinities are considered blasphemy, a crime punishable by a fine. There were no reports regarding enforcement of this law during the period covered by the report.

Denial of the Holocaust is a crime punishable by up to four years in prison.

The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Epiphany, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, All Saints' Day, Immaculate Conception, and Christmas.

The 2005 Antiterrorism Decree, which penalized those who attempted to hide their identity, may affect those who choose to wear face-concealing attire such as the niqab or burqa; there were no restrictions on wearing the hijab or headscarf in public. A seldom-cited 1931 law forbids individuals from hiding their identities, and a 1975 antiterror law requires persons to show their faces in public for security reasons. On January 29, 2010, the city of Novara enacted a local ordinance to enforce the 1975 antiterror law, prohibiting individuals from covering their faces in public areas near government facilities.

The government provided funds for the construction of places of worship, granted public land for their construction, and helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship that shelter much of the country's artistic and cultural heritage.

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

The revised concordat of 1984 accords the Catholic Church certain privileges regarding instruction in public schools. For example, the government allowed the church to select Catholic teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in "hour of religion" courses taught in the public schools. Such courses were optional, and students who did not wish to attend were 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 was limited. The constitution prohibits state support for private schools; however, the law provides tax breaks for parents with dependents in private schools.

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 reporting period; however, no Muslim group has been able to build a mosque in the past year.

There were occasional reports that government officials or the public objected to women wearing garments that completely covered the face and body.

On April 30, 2010, local police in Novara fined a Tunisian woman $642 (500 euros) for wearing a face-covering niqab (usually referred to as a burqa in the country) near a post office. This episode marked the first time that the law--passed in January 2010 to enforce a 1975 antiterror law requiring persons to show their faces in public--was invoked. While the mayor of Novara identified security as the reason for the fine, other statements by local politicians suggested that the law was an attempt to legislate cultural norms.

In August 2009 a northern town banned "burkinis" from its public pool. The mayor claimed the full-body swimsuit could disturb small children. He added that such swimwear could be a potential violation of pool hygiene rules.

On December 23, 2009, the city of Genoa authorized the building of a mosque on a piece of land provided by local authorities. On January 23, 2010, the Northern League organized a referendum at the city level, and 99 percent of the 5,300 voters voted against allowing the new mosque. On April 27, 2010, the spokesman of the local Islamic community, Alfredo Maiolese, resigned after receiving threats from local citizens. Other than a debate among local architects about the design of the proposed mosque and the local imam's appeal for a decision to be made before the end of 2010, nothing substantive had transpired by the end of the reporting period, and debate was expected to resume in September 2010. City of Turin officials approved plans for a Muslim cultural center, which was expected to include a prayer room. The center had obtained building permits. Consistent with the city's ban on the construction of any tower-like structures, the plans did not include a minaret. Milan, home to an estimated 100,000 Muslims, has several small "cultural centers" but does not have an official mosque. The attempts by the Islamic Center of Via Padova, an organization of several thousand Muslims that has tried for several years to build a mosque with a minaret in Milan, continued to be unsuccessful.

The continuing presence of Catholic symbols, such as crucifixes, in courtrooms, schools, and other public buildings continued to draw criticism and led to a number of lawsuits. The one with most visibility originated in 2002, when a mother argued that the presence of crucifixes in her children's public school classrooms ran counter to the principle of secularism, referred to a court of cassation judgment of 2000 which had found the presence of crucifixes in polling stations to be contrary to the principle of secularism of the state. The case continued through all levels of the justice system but lost because crucifixes were not only religious symbols but also symbols of the country's history, culture, and identity, and that they represented the democratic principles of equality, liberty, and tolerance. In February 2006 the country's highest administrative court dismissed the mother's appeal, arguing that in the country the crucifix represented the secular values of the constitution and of civic life. The mother took the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which on November 3, 2009, determined that the display of crucifixes in public schools violated the separation of church and state. The ruling condemned the country for violating freedom of religion and the right to education. On March 2, 2010, the ECHR agreed to hear the government's appeal, and on June 30, 2010, the ECHR Grand Chamber heard the government's case. The Grand Chamber had not announced its decision by the end of the reporting period.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

On February 10, 2010, Interior Minister Maroni established a Committee for Italian Islam made up of 19 Muslim and non-Muslim experts organized into four working groups on imam training, mosques, burqa law, and mixed marriages. They will submit recommendations to the government on new rules that might facilitate religious practices and integration. The committee received criticism for its mainly Italian, non-Muslim constitution. In April 2010 one member of the committee, a convert to Islam and member of the board of the mosque of Rome, resigned, stating that "only two out of eight working group rapporteurs are Muslims" and only a few of the members are "practicing Muslims recognized by their own communities."

National, regional, and local authorities organized annual educational initiatives and other events to support National Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. In 2010 ceremonies were hosted by the nation's president and the Chamber of Deputies president (who invited Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to address the Chamber), as well as a ceremony presided over by the president of the senate in the former Italian concentration camp of San Saba. On the same day, the minister of foreign affairs participated in the first meeting of a special parliamentary inquiry committee on anti-Semitism. On October 29, 2009, the Constitutional Affairs and Foreign Affairs committees of the Chamber of Deputies established the temporary committee to explore current trends in anti-Semitism in the country and abroad and to propose legislative measures to counter such developments.

On April 24, 2010, the city of Ferrara announced that a new National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Holocaust was scheduled to be built by the end of 2011.

On October 24, 2009, the Church of Scientology initiated construction on one of its largest European centers in Rome.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were occasional reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice, but prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom.

The country's approximately 30,000 Jews maintained synagogues in 21 cities. Anti-Semitic societal prejudices persisted, manifested largely by anti-Semitic graffiti in a number of cities. Small extremist fringe groups were responsible for anti-Semitic acts.

According to the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, in 2010 there were more than 40 anti-Semitic Web sites and social networks.

On March 17, 2010, a 75-year-old rabbi of Moroccan origin was insulted on a bus in Milan by a group yelling, "Jews go away, we will kill you all." No one on the bus, including the driver, intervened to defend the man.

On March 28, 2010, commemorative stones in memory of a family that was deported to Auschwitz were vandalized in Rome. On January 28, 2010, anti-Semitic graffiti slogans containing threats against the president of the Rome Jewish community appeared in the center of Rome. Other anti-Semitic graffiti incidents occurred in various cities throughout the year, including in Rome and Milan.

On May 21, 2010, police searched the homes of four activists of the fascist group Militia that were organizing a summit with other radical associations to create a national network. They were suspected of hate crimes and vandalism, including anti-Semitic graffiti committed in Rome and other cities.

In the period prior to the March 2010 regional elections, some civil and political groups in the north--most consistently the Northern League party--employed harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric linking immigrants to crime, security issues, and job losses. While this rhetoric was broadly anti-immigrant, the strongest disapproval tended to be reserved for Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East (among the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the north). After the elections, anti-immigrant rhetoric was considerably more muted, and the Northern League's primary political focus shifted away from immigrant-related issues.

While there were no specific instances of anti-Muslim sentiment reported, some Muslims in the north said they perceived hostility toward their religion in their interactions with citizens and local government institutions. Muslims in many locations continued to encounter difficulties in getting permission to construct mosques. Although local officials usually cited other grounds for refusing building permits, some Muslims asserted that hostility toward their religion underlay the difficulties. The efforts of Northern League members of parliament to seek legislation to restrict building additional mosques furthered a hostile attitude toward Muslims.

The Italian Center for Peace in the Middle East, a nonprofit organization aimed at encouraging Arab, Israeli, and Palestinian dialogue, held a National Conference of Second-Generation Muslims in December 2009 in Turin. The conference focused on a variety of issues that concerned Muslim immigrant populations and their children in the country.

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.

Within the framework of its programming on immigration and diversity, the U.S. mission carried out a program of Muslim outreach, including cultural events and meetings with local Muslim communities. Many of these events brought together native-born citizens and Muslims, often immigrants, to build communication skills, enhance crosscultural understanding, and promote religious and ethnic tolerance.

The embassy and consulates continued to reach out to the children of Muslim immigrants, including through student leadership programs and exchanges for community leaders such as the Voluntary Visitor and International Visitor Leadership Programs. The mission promoted moderate messages and religious tolerance through Muslim community-focused cultural events, such as the annual iftar (evening meal during Ramadan). A visit by the U.S. special representative to Muslim communities brought together concerned government officials with opinion leaders from immigrant communities to stress the need for interfaith tolerance and social policies that promote integration.

Beyond the Muslim-Italian community, the embassy hosted a series of seminars on immigration and interreligious tolerance targeted at high school students. The mission also maintained contact with other religious groups and monitored cases of discrimination.

Search Refworld

Countries