In Italy, Religious Minorities Struggle (Vainly) for Official Recognition

What do a Reform Jew, a Muslim and a Buddhist have in common, when living in Italy? To put it bluntly: they don't exist—not officially, at least.

Italy has 1.5 millions of Muslim residents, making Islam de facto the second-biggest religion in this predominantly Catholic country. There are Reform Jewish congregations in most big cities (Rome and Florence have one each, Milan has two) and Buddhism has had an organized presence in Italy since the mid 1980s.

But officially these three groups have no status. And they are in good company: among communities that are currently awaiting for recognition from the Italian authorities there are also Hindus, a number of Christian Evangelical churches, and Christian Orthodox who are not directly affiliated with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

“As far as the government is concerned, we don't exist,” David Ross, president of the Beth Shalom congregation in Milan, told the Daily Beast. Ross's view is shared by Valerio Tozzi, a University of Salerno law professor who argued in a 2011 paper that a number of religion minorities are “juridically non-existent” in Italy. This still applies today.

“Of course that's a problem, and not just for us, but for other groups as well,” said Ross. Unrecognized religious groups cannot send chaplains to prisons or hospitals. Weddings celebrated by imams, Buddhist priests and non-Orthodox rabbis are not legally valid. In some cases, finding places to pray or bury the dead can become quite complicated.

The fact is, Italian authorities deal with religion minorities in an extremely rigid—and, some would say, discriminatory—way.

The Catholic Church, which used to be the country's official religion until the current constitution was signed in 1948, is guaranteed the right to operate freely under the Lateran Accords, a formal agreement signed by Benito Mussolini and the pope in 1929 and revised in 1984. A handful of other religion organizations, including Orthodox Judaism and Mormonism, are protected by a series of “Intese,” or agreements, that were signed individually with the government upon the request of community leaders.

It is entirely the government's prerogative to accede to these requests or not. As a result, noted Tozzi, the law professor, “only a few religious communities are lucky enough to have [an agreement] stipulated” (emphasis my own).

“This is an obsolete way of thinking,” says Davide Piccardo, who heads Caim, the umbrella organization of Muslim communities in the city area. “In a modern, secular country basic [religious] rights should be recognized for all, they should not be some sort of 'concession,'” he told the Daily Beast.

Whether a religious group receives formal recognition, moreover, may not be entirely a matter of luck. Political pressure, economic resources and the ability to navigate into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy play a determinant role.

Muslim groups have repeatedly tried to ask for an agreement since 2000, but their requests have gone unanswered. Some blame the government's failure to respond on Islamophobia, political interests and divisions within the Muslim community itself. Non-Orthodox Jews simply say they don't have the resources for a legal procedures that might take years, if not decades, with no guarantee of results.

That's what happened to the Buddhists and Hindus: they both managed to get preliminary agreements signed, in 2002 and 2007 respectively, but since then have not succeeded in obtaining final approval, with no official explanation from the government. Corriere della Sera, Italy's largest newspaper, labelled the authorities' behavior as “vile ostracism” toward those faiths.

Others say that one of the problems lies in a legal system designed to apply to other religions a formula originally carved for the Vatican: “It's obvious that the Catholic Church served as a paradigm [when this legal system was conceived], but since then the world has changed significantly,” said Khaled Fouad Allam, a sociologist at the university of Trieste. Allam is one of the few Muslims to have served in the Italian Parliament. The Catholic Church is a hierarchically well-defined organization with one indisputable leader, he explained, while other religions are not so monolithically organized. So “to apply this model is almost impossible.”

According to the Italian constitution, all religions are equal and free to operate. But the constitution also specifies that mandatory individual agreements with the government are required. Some find this self-contradictory. Liberal politicians proposed a law granting automatically religion freedom for all, in an attempt to bypass the constitutional requirement for an “Intesa,” but they failed. The opposition from Catholic bishops did not help

“We've been discussing a law on religion freedom for almost 20 years, but for some reasons parliament always lacked the determination on this topic,” said Allam.

He continued, “This is weird, considering that the Italian public seems more than ready for this. Unfortunately the politicians are way behind society.”