Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
October 26, 2009

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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. There were reports of societal anti-Semitism following the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. 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 59.6 million. An estimated 87 percent of native-born citizens are Roman Catholic, but only 20 percent regularly participate in worship services. Members of non-Catholic Christian groups, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha'i Faith adherents, and Buddhists constitute less than 5 percent of the population. Significant Christian communities include Christian 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.

Immigration--both legal and illegal--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, 1.25 million Muslim, 0.14 million Protestant, and 0.1 million Hindu or Buddhist.

The Ministry of the Interior reported that there are 258 places of worship for Muslims (mainly "garage" mosques) concentrated in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto, Lazio, Emilia Romagna, and Tuscany. The Jewish community is estimated at 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 law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

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 maintains the practice of state support for religion, which 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 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 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.

Groups with an intesa include the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Adventists, Assembly of God, Jews, Baptists, and Lutherans. In 2007 the Government signed accords with the Buddhist Union, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, and Hindus. On the same date, the Government amended previous intese with the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches and the Adventists. The 2007 new and amended intese must be approved by the Council of Ministers and then submitted to Parliament for ratification; however, at the end of the reporting period the Government had taken no action. Negotiations remained suspended with the Soka Gakkai, a Japanese Buddhist group, pending their reorganization. Divisions among Muslim organizations, as well as the existence of multiple Muslim immigrant groups, 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 the fiscal exempt status. Clergy registered by the Ministry of Interior are authorized to celebrate marriages recognized by civil authorities.

Insults against all divinities are considered blasphemy, a crime punished by a fine.

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 penalizes those who attempt to hide their identity, may impinge on those who choose to wear attire such as a burqa; however, Muslim women are free to wear the veil in public. Individuals are also forbidden to hide their identities under a seldom-used 1931 law.

On March 26, 2009, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill which forbids assisted suicide and introduces the possibility of expressing living wills for medical treatments in case of terminal illness, valid for three years, to be interpreted and implemented by doctors. Nutrition and hydration remain compulsory, as requested by some Catholic leaders.

The Government provides funds for the construction of places of worship, grants public land for their construction, and helps 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 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. Problems may arise 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, 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, some Muslim groups reported being unable to construct mosques for worship.

On April 24, 2009, a group of moderate Muslims, including Member of Parliament Souad Sbai, along with the leader of the Northern League, Mario Borghezio, demonstrated against the establishment of a new mosque in Turin, funded by the Moroccan government, and the designation of a Moroccan imam who did not speak Italian. They requested the democratic election of another imam by followers of all nationalities. The protest followed an announcement by the leader of the Union of Muslims in Italy, Abdel Azziz Khounati, of the purchase of property to build a mosque and cultural center.

In August 2008 the mayor of Bologna, Sergio Cofferati, suspended plans for the construction of a new mosque on the grounds that the promoters did not satisfy construction requirements. In particular, they were unable 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 allegedly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some UCOII members denied any formal affiliation. In July 2008 Genoa mayor Marta Vincenzi imposed the exclusion of UCOII as a prerequisite to authorize the construction of a new mosque.

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.

On February 17, 2009, the Cassation Court acquitted a judge who had been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and barred from holding public office for a year by the Appeal Court of L'Aquila for refusing to preside in a courtroom where a crucifix was displayed; he accused the Minister of Justice of religious prejudice for not allowing the display of a menorah. Also in February, the Ministry of Education suspended for a month a teacher who removed the crucifix from a classroom in Perugia.

On August 25, 2008, a woman wearing a niq�b, a veil that covers the face, was refused entrance to a museum in Venice. The director of the museum later apologized and said a guard had erred in barring her.

On August 18, 2008, police arrested Abdelmajid Zergout, the imam of a mosque in Varese, at the request of Moroccan authorities, who sought him on charges of "participating in acts of terrorism," including suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003.

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 who had not been allowed to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

On March 3, 2009, the city of Florence created a Permanent Council for Dialogue with Religious Confessions to promote cooperation between religious groups and public institutions and facilitate the construction of new places of worship.

Also in March 2009, the Government announced a boycott of the UN World Conference against Racism in Durban. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini condemned the preparatory document that included criticism of Israeli foreign policy and anti-Semitic comments regarding the Holocaust.

National, regional, and local authorities organized annual educational initiatives and other events to support National Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2009, such as the ceremonies hosted by the President and the President of the Chamber of Deputies.

In December 2008 the city of Milan approved a new plan for the enlargement of the Islamic Center.

In October 2008 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the construction of its first temple in the country.

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, and prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom.

There were no reports of violent anti-Semitic attacks in the period covered by this report, but public opinion surveys indicated that anti-Semitism was growing in the country. A survey conducted by the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation in 2009 found that 44 percent of citizens had an anti-Jewish prejudice. Some believed that "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Italy" and that "Jews exercise excessive economic influence." Twelve percent maintained that "Jews behave like Nazis with the Palestinians."

On January 23, 2009, in Rome, 22 shops owned by Jews were the target of vandalism by the fascist group Militia, which left a banner urging a boycott of Jewish shops. In November 2008 police arrested an activist of the same group who on the 65th anniversary of the fascist raid in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome displayed banners bearing anti-Semitic slogans, including denial of the Holocaust.

On January 4, 2009, during the Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip, 3,000 Muslims organized a prayer near the Cathedral of Milan and demonstrated in favor of Palestinians. The crowd shouted slogans against "the terrorist state of Israel," and a small group burned Israeli and American flags. Politicians, government officials, and the majority of members of the Islamic Council firmly condemned the anti-Semitic episodes. Leaders of Milan's Muslim communities later met with the Catholic archbishop and apologized for the incident.

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 carried out a program of Muslim outreach, including meetings with local Muslim communities and cultural music events. Many of these events brought together native-born citizens and Muslims, often immigrants, to build cross-cultural understanding as well as religious and ethnic tolerance.

The Embassy continued to reach out to second-generation Muslim immigrants through student leadership programs, including the Voluntary Visitor program and International Visitor Programs for young Muslim leaders. The Embassy also implemented a cooperative television program on Muslim integration in the United States and Italy, training on interfaith dialogue techniques in conjunction with U.S.-based Interfaith Youth Core, and a workshop entitled "Blogging as a Minority." Embassy officials continued to meet with local Muslim communities and participate in Muslim community-focused cultural events, such as a special program with the Chargé d'Affaires and U.S. author Walter Russel Mead to discuss U.S. President Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech with Muslim representatives in Rome and Milan.

The Embassy also maintained contact with other religious groups and monitored discrimination.