International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Problems relating to religion that arise stem from formal state recognition (to facilitate access by ministers of religion to public hospitals and prisons, or to link religious ceremonies to civil registration of marriages), state financial support for religion, and state involvement with the teaching of religion in the public schools. The Catholic Church's historic and continuing predominant role in society leads to controversy when Church teaching is perceived as instruction to Catholic legislators on matters of public policy.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 116,347 square miles and its population is approximately 57.8 million. An estimated 85 percent of native-born citizens are nominally Roman Catholics. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses form the second largest denomination among such citizens, numbering some 400,000 adherents. However, immigration--both legal and illegal--continues to add large groups of non-Christian residents, mainly Muslims from North Africa, South Asia, Albania, and the Middle East, who now number an estimated 1 million. Buddhists include approximately 40,000 Europeans and 20,000 Asians. Scientologists claim approximately 100,000 members, Waldensians approximately 30,000 members, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) approximately 20,000 members. A shrinking Jewish community of approximately 30,000 persons maintains synagogues in 21 cities. Other significant religious communities include Orthodox churches and small Protestant groups, Japanese Buddhists, and South Asian Hindus.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The 1947 Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The Government at all levels generally protects this right in full, and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

Prior to the Constitution's adoption, the country's relations with the Catholic Church were governed by a 1929 Concordat, which established Catholicism as the country's state religion. A 1984 revision of the Concordat formalized the principle of a secular state but maintained the principle of state support for religion--support that also could 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") entered into by the Government and the religious confession. If a religious community so requests, an intesa can provide for state routing, via voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns, of funds to that community--a privilege that some communities initially declined but later requested. An intesa 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.

In 1984 the first such accord granted specific benefits to the Waldensian Church. Similar accords (which require lengthy procedures to obtain) extended similar benefits to the Adventists and Assembly of God (1988), to Jews (1989), and to Baptists and Lutherans (1995). In March 2000, the Government signed accords with the Buddhist Union and Jehovah's Witnesses. However, the parliamentary committee to which these accords were referred failed to approve implementing legislation, and questions raised in committee suggested hostility on the part of some of its members toward Jehovah's Witnesses.

Other groups that have filed for an intesa include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), the Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church (of the Constantinople Patriarchate), Hindus, and (Japanese Buddhist) Sogagakai. At least two organizations in the country's growing Muslim community also have announced their intention to seek an intesa.

The revised Concordat of 1984 accorded the Catholic Church certain privileges. For example, the Church is allowed to select Catholic teachers to provide instruction in an "hour of religion" courses taught in the public schools. The teachers are paid by the State. This class is optional, and students not interested in it are free to study other subjects or, in certain cases, to leave school early. While in the past this instruction involved teaching by Catholic priests,

Church-selected instructors now may be either lay or religious, and their instruction is intended to include material relevant to non-Catholic faiths. Problems may arise in small communities where information about other faiths and numbers of non-Catholic communicants is limited.

While Roman Catholicism is no longer the state religion, its role as the dominant one occasionally gives rise to problems--some overt, others subtly societal. Declining enrollment in Catholic schools led Church officials to seek government aid, despite the Constitution's prohibition against state support for private schools. A 1999 legislative formula that provided means-tested support for students from poorer families (enrolled either at private or state schools) nonetheless drew papal criticism for being "inadequate." Following a March 2000 European Parliament vote in favor of granting homosexual couples the same legal rights as married ones, the Vatican Pontifical Council for the Family called on legislators "and particularly Catholic members of Parliament" to oppose such legislation. The continuing presence of Catholic symbols, such as crucifixes, which may be found hanging on courtroom or government office walls, has drawn criticism and has been the object of lawsuits. In April 2000, the Court of Cassation ruled in favor of a schoolteacher who asserted that crucifixes should not be present at voting sites maintained by a secular state. Subsequent to a series of Church consultations with political leaders prior to May 2001 elections, President Carlo Ciampi underlined the secular nature of the State and the Constitution's explicit separation of church and state.

Missionaries or religious workers do not encounter problems but must apply for appropriate visas prior to arriving in the country.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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 Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Religious and government officials encourage mutual respect for religious differences.

In view of the negative aspects of the nation's Fascist past, government leaders routinely acknowledge and pay tribute to Jews victimized by the country's 1938 racial laws. For example, in January 1999, then-President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, ministers, and top parliamentary officials attended a presentation in the Chamber of Deputies of a book on the background to, and consequences of, those racial laws.

Increasing immigration, much of it from China, South Asia, North and West Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East, is altering demographic and cultural patterns in communities across the country and has led to some anti-immigrant sentiment. As many migrants are Muslim, religion becomes an additional factor differentiating them from native-born citizens. Some Catholic prelates have contributed to popular reaction by emphasizing the perceived threat posed by the immigrants to the country's "national identity" and what they view as the country's need to favor immigration by Catholics "or at least Christians." On occasion Church spokesmen have emphasized the difficulties in Catholic-Muslim mixed marriages.

For example, on June 7, 2000, the press reported that Italian Episcopal Conference Secretary, Monsignor Ennio Antonelli, commented on the Conference's decision earlier that year to tighten dispensation for Catholics to marry Muslims. He said that "the problem of mixed marriages is also tied-in with the matter of a possible accord between the Italian State and Muslims. The Italian State should assure, in a rigorous manner, that Italian constitutional values are protected, especially in regard to the family." The report further noted that the Conference's current position represented a reversal of previous Church policy, as 3 years earlier Church officials had responded to the growing trend of Catholic-Muslim marriages by organizing classes on Muslim world culture and tradition.

In September 2000, Bologna Cardinal Giacomo Biffi issued a pastoral letter, in which he called for an immigration policy favoring Catholics over those who are Muslim "in order to safeguard our nation's identity." Biffi's letter provoked protests but also drew support. One prominent priest, Gianni Bagget Bozzo, who often writes for press publication, affirmed "the need to erect a Christian dike against the Muslim invasion of Italy."

In October 2000, Interior Minister Enzo Bianco revealed a letter he had received from Cardinal Biffi, in which the prelate repeated his warning that Europe must either return to Christianity or risk becoming Muslim. The Cardinal maintained that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with historically Christian countries.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.