By Patrick O'Brien
Just as the recent Gaza War had repercussions on Israeli politics, it is having effects on Italian politics as well. The war has raised new questions about church-state relations in a country where religion is always touchy.
The Italian front of the Gaza War opened in Milan on January 3rd, with a demonstration to oppose the Israeli incursion into Gaza. A Muslim prayer in the Piazza Duomo followed the demonstration. This square is the highest profile locale in the city as well as the location of the third-largest Catholic cathedral in the world. The authorities had apparently known about the protest, but the prayer in front of the cathedral was spontaneous. A similar event was held in Bologna in front of San Petronio Cathedral. Italian newspapers printed images of several hundred Muslims gathered in front of the churches, praying toward Mecca.
Italy's Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said he opposes the "para-religious" demonstrations. "What would have happened if a group of Christians gathered together to pray the rosary before Mecca?" he asked. "They probably would have been stoned."
According to the Italian news agency ANSA, La Russa staged a Catholic mass in Piazza Duomo the following Sunday "in order to 'reclaim' the area." So the Italian military's arsenal now includes Catholic prayers, to counter Muslim prayers - of which, in La Russa's words, "there is no need at political events." Interior Minister Roberto Maroni is thus preparing a new directive prohibiting protests in front of religious sites.
Violent protests have occurred recently throughout Europe - for reasons ranging from education reform in Italy to police brutality in Greece to economic woes across the Continent. The Italian authorities naturally are under pressure to keep order and avoid "provocation." But the Gaza demonstrations in Italy were not violent at all. The worst that was reported was protestors shouting slogans comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and burning Israeli and American flags. That's provocative, perhaps, but not violent. And a government ban on demonstrations in front of religious sites would have removed only the most subdued portion of the larger demonstration.
Such a ban would never be respected in other western countries, but in Italy it's seen as a band-aid to the deeper problems of immigration. Muslims - notably Moroccans and Tunisians - make up the largest percentage of new arrivals. Both Maroni's and La Russa's parties - the National Alliance and the Northern League, respectively - have anti-immigrant platforms. To allay Italians' suspicions, these and other politicians in Berlusconi's governing coalition have been seeking ways to reduce the inflow of immigrants and to integrate better those who are already there - by mandating, for example, that imams preach in Italian rather than Arabic.
Interestingly, most of Italy's religious leaders refuse to join the fight. The Archbishop of Milan, while suggesting that some acts by the protestors were decidedly not inspired by religion, refused to condemn the Muslim prayer service, saying that prayer is "an inalienable right." Various Italian Muslim groups have apologized for any offense caused. The most recent demonstration/prayer service was held in front of a decidedly secular symbol - the Roman Coliseum.
Perhaps the supporters of the ban are right: prudence is a virtue, and that includes not "provoking" others unnecessarily. And any religious leaders who both practice and preach prudence should be admired. But right or wrong, it seems that some politicians are motivated out of something other than prudence.
Patrick O'Brien is a graduate student in the Russian and Eurasian Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy. He previously served two years as a volunteer with Peace Corps Albania.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.