International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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. 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 faiths.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The Catholic Church's influential role in society has led to controversy when church teachings have appeared to influence Catholic legislators on matters of public policy. Increasing immigration has led to some anti-immigrant sentiment; for the country's many Muslim immigrants, religion has served as an additional factor differentiating them from native-born citizens.

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 million. An estimated 87 percent of native-born citizens are nominally Roman Catholics. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses form the second largest denomination among such citizens, numbering approximately 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 number an estimated 1 million. Buddhists include approximately 40,000 adherents of European origin and 20,000 of Asian origin.

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 Jewish community of approximately 30,000 persons maintains synagogues in 21 cities. Other significant religious communities include Orthodox churches, small Protestant groups, Japanese Buddhists, the Baha'i Faith, and South Asian Hindus.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

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

Prior to the Constitution's adoption in 1947, the country's relations with the Catholic Church were governed by a 1929 Concordat, which resolved longstanding disputes stemming from the dissolution of the Papal States and established Catholicism as the country's state religion. A 1984 revision of the Concordat formalized the principle of a secular state but maintained the practice 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") between the Government and the religious confession. An intesa grants ministers of religions 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, through a voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns, of funds to that community, a privilege that some communities initially declined but later requested. The absence of an intesa does not affect a religious group's ability to worship freely; however, the privileges granted by an intesa are not always granted automatically, and a religious community without an intesa does not benefit financially from the voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns.

In 1984 the first such accord granted specific benefits to the Waldensian Church. Similar accords, which are negotiated by the Interior Ministry and require parliamentary approval, extended similar benefits to the Adventists and Assembly of God (1988), Jews (1989), and Baptists and Lutherans (1995). In 2000 the Government signed accords with the Buddhist Union and Jehovah's Witnesses; however, these intese did not receive parliamentary ratification before that Government left office. With new filings initiated by the Mormons (1998), the Apostolic Church (2000), the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate (1998), Hindus (2001), and (Japanese Buddhist) Soka Gakkai (2001), the current Government chose to complete work on pending requests and submit all such accords--including those previously signed with the Buddhist Union and Jehovah's Witnesses--to Parliament as a single package. The Government plans to finalize pending omnibus religious freedom legislation, which incorporates current provisions contained in other laws, before seeking approval of the pending accords; the accords awaited parliamentary approval at the end of the period covered by this report. Divisions among the country's Muslim organizations, as well as its multiple Muslim immigrant groups, have hindered that community's efforts 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, paid by the State, to provide instruction in "hour of religion" courses taught in the public schools. This class is 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 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 are 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.

While Roman Catholicism is no longer the state religion, its role as the dominant religion occasionally gives rise to problems. In November 2002, the Pope addressed a joint session of Parliament for the first time, urging lawmakers to emphasize moral values and the society's historical Christian heritage in exercising their duties. In January 2002, the Pope called on Catholic jurists to boycott divorce cases; however, Justice Minister Roberto Castelli noted that judges should not exercise "conscientious objection" in discharging their duties, and there have been no reports of judges boycotting divorce cases in response to the Pope's statement. Subsequent to a series of church consultations with political leaders prior to the 2001 national elections, President Ciampi underlined the secular nature of the State and the Constitution's explicit separation of religion and State. In June 2002, Parliament passed legislation favored by the Vatican that prohibited the use of donated sperm for artificial insemination. The legislation drew support from Catholic legislators across the political spectrum, while secular conservatives and Communists joined to oppose it. During the reporting period, prominent Catholic politicians joined the Pope and other church officials in asserting that the draft European Constitution should include language recognizing Europe's Christian heritage.

The continuing presence of Catholic symbols, such as crucifixes, in courtrooms, schools, and other public buildings has drawn criticism and has led to a number of lawsuits. In March Parliament tabled proposed legislation from several parties requiring display of crucifixes in all public classrooms. In 2000 the Court of Cassation, the country's highest appellate court, ruled in favor of a schoolteacher who asserted that crucifixes should not be present at voting sites maintained by a secular state. However, attempts by individual teachers to remove crucifixes from the classroom in public schools, in deference to Muslim students, have resulted in newspaper editorial criticism for "excessive zeal."

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 free 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 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 continued to encourage mutual respect for religious differences.

In view of the negative aspects of the country's Fascist past, government leaders routinely acknowledge and pay tribute to Jews victimized by the country's 1938 racial laws.

National, regional, and local authorities organize annual educational initiatives and other events to support National Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. In April 2003, Parliament approved the creation of a National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Ferrara.

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. For the country's many Muslim immigrants, religion serves as an additional factor differentiating them from native-born citizens. Some Catholic politicians and community leaders have contributed to popular reaction by emphasizing the perceived threat posed by 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.

The arrest and prosecution of Islamic extremists for using prayer centers to plan, coordinate, and support terrorism and the replacement of the imam of Rome's Grand Mosque for preaching violence against "infidels" prompted some commentators and politicians to generalize about Islam's incompatibility with societies organized around Judeo-Christian values and beliefs. Other prominent politicians, including Interior Minister Guiseppe Pisanu and Senate President Marcello Pera, rejected such generalizations and urged increased interfaith dialog. Pera advocated rapid conclusion of an intesa with the Islamic faith as an additional means to isolate extremists.

The Northern League political party, a minority member of the governing coalition, asserted that practices present in many Islamic societies, notably polygamy, Islamic family law, the role of women, and the lack of separation between religion and state, rendered many Muslim immigrants incompatible for integration into society.

Government units in the country provide funds for the construction of places of worship as well as public land for their construction, and they help preserve and maintain historic places of worship that shelter much of the country's artistic and cultural heritage. The Campania regional administration has devoted public funds toward the construction of a mosque in Naples despite the absence of a formal intesa between the State and the Muslim confession.

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.