Religious freedom, the obstacles in the path towards equal opportunities in Italy

by Camillo Maffia

Recent reports on the conditions of religious freedom in Italy show a relatively peaceful situation compared with other European countries and the world. However, there is often the tendency to underestimate the backwardness of the legislative framework, insufficient to contain the changes that globalization has produced in a country in which, only thirty years ago, Catholicism was the only religion of the State. The media role and the control of the police on religious minorities is such as to enable us to affirm that equal religious opportunities are not guaranteed enough, at the level of co-existence, in the country.



Freedom of religion is clearly enshrined in the Italian Constitution (Articles 3, 7, 8, 19,20,21). As it is often pointed out by authoritative commentators and members of religious minorities,  law rules dating back to the '30s,  have not been repealed, and in that time the Constitution did not exist yet. The fundamental right is therefore guaranteed by the Constitution, but with a big difference between the Catholic Church-State relations and those with other religious and spiritual movements, and the legislative initiatives in this field after the Constitution, have not been able to adapt securing such protection that it is conformed to what the constitutional text says.

The text in facts provides for " special agreements " with the cults present in the country. But fascist legislation in relation to " cults allowed", never deleted, reveals a wide gap between the religious groups present in the area. In addition, the same system of government agreements makes that a religious movement not frowned upon by a government that represents the voters belonging to the main religion, may have greater difficulty in accessing to agreements with that government respect a religious group well accepted or closer to the political majority in Parliament.

Law rules and controversial campaigns on immigration phenomena have made difficult for the public opinion to accept the legitimate demand of the recognition of new religions that count numerous followers on the Italian territory. And although the number of members of new religious movements is particularly low (2.5% - CESNUR valuation ), also Italian citizens who join these groups can not live their spiritual life with serenity for the frequent arrows thrown through newspapers,  from Catholic priests, pundits and politicians against so-called "sects" and " alternative spirituality ". Forms more or less veiled of xenophobia have created in the public opinion a strong negative feeling towards what appears to be "different" from the reality in which most of the people ordinarily recognizes himself.

The fact that Catholicism is the majority religion , together with the presence of the Catholic Church within the borders of the country and the rules of the agreement between Vatican and State still in force , has often been exploited politically. The freedom of religion of Catholic voters , far from being the subject of the political debate or to lead to an increased focus on the Catholic groups and persecuted Christians outside the Italian borders , have often been used as a pretext to undermine freedom other religious and social groups .

An evidence of this situation, is the existence of a special department in the Police, called Anti- Sects Squad (SAS), which was established in 2006,  identifying the key contact in a Catholic religious group well known for its extremist positions on the secularism (see Englaro case). The court cases raised by this team , created in collaboration with anti-cult movements, have proved unfounded regularly in Court. Religious movements or assumed in that way, subject  of investigations and then acquitted, are not been redeemed in their image, thus continuing to create in the public opinion,  a non-existent " religious sects alarm " and a serious form of discrimination against certain minorities, with the consequent suffering of innocent people that have tried prison and  shame of media .

The need of a framework law on religious freedom, although repeatedly requested , is lost in the political debate. Parliamentary questions about the SAS and discriminatory campaigns against minorities and new religious movements have not , until now , been answered. It is desirable today , an awareness of the need for application of the constitutional principle of the secular state, from both by the majority and those minority religions and atheistic movements, in order to ensure equal opportunities in the respect of the fundamental right of everyone to profess their religion, belief or thought.