Racism Seen On The Rise In Italy

Activists in Italy say the level of racism in the country has worsened in recent years, and a number of events in the run-up to Christmas would seem to support that view. A campaign against illegal immigrants, called "Operation White Christmas," has been taking place in a small town near Milan. The campaign is run by the anti-immigrant Northern League party. In Verona, a furious row has broken out over the use of a dark-skinned statue of the baby Jesus in a nativity scene outside the town hall.

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Italy has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in Europe. And this holiday season has been marked by a series of anti-immigrant and racist episodes. Some of them have even been condoned by government officials, as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The small town of Coccaglio, near Milan, was all but unknown until a few weeks ago. With a population of 7,000, including 1,500 of immigrant origin, the mayor ordered police to carry out house-to-house searches for illegal immigrants. The town is governed by the nativist Northern League, and the search operation was dubbed White Christmas. Claudio Abiendi, the town councilor in charge of security, said: For me, Christmas is not the holiday of hospitality, but rather that of the Christian tradition and of our identity. Italy's interior minister, Roberto Maroni, also of the Northern League, approved the operation.

Mr. ROBERTO MARONI (Interior Minster, Italy): (Through Translator) What the mayor of Coccaglio ordered has already been done by many other towns. It's an operation to guarantee there are no illegal immigrants on the territory. There's been big brouhaha over nothing.

POGGIOLI: In a tense atmosphere, Coccaglio's non-Italian residents took to the streets to protest.

(Soundbite of drums and whistles)

POGGIOLI: Ibrahim Diallo, a trade unionist who emigrated here from Mali, called on Italians to stand alongside immigrants.

Mr. IBRAHIM DIALLO (Trade Union Leader, Italy): (Through Translator) We say to Italians, when a immigrant is deprived of a right, Italians are also deprived of that right.

POGGIOLI: Coccaglio's White Christmas operation was only the latest anti-immigrant initiative during the Christmas season. In Verona, a furious row broke out over the use of a dark-skin statue of the baby Jesus in a nativity scene. And in Cherizara(ph), the yuletide concert by the public school kindergarten class, filled with children of immigrants, was canceled in favor of a concert by Italian children studying at the private Catholic school. Ilvo Diamanti is a sociologist who closely follows immigration issues.

Professor ILVO DIAMANTI (Sociology, University of Urbino) (Through Translator) This White Christmas affair shows Italians are playing too much with racism -in soccer stadiums, in daily life, and in politics. Words are not neutral. Words that praise xenophobia, foment xenophobia.

POGGIOLI: With immigrants now reaching about 7 percent of the population, the Northern League has been in the forefront in fomenting fear and tension. It has proposed everything from separate buses for immigrants to banning the construction of new mosques, and even denying licenses for kebab shops and other non-Italian food in city centers. Soccer stadiums are another arena fostering racism.

(Soundbite of demonstration)

POGGIOLI: These soccer fans are chanting offensive remarks against one of the most brilliant and promising young Italian players, Mario Balotelli. The 19-year-old son of Ghanian parents was born in Italy, and adopted by an Italian family. He is tall, talented and black. He's also totally Italian, speaking with a northern lilt. But on the soccer field, Balotelli is the target of the most venomous racist rant of any black player in Italy.

Unidentified Man: Balotelli (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: This chanting fan screams: Balotelli, son of a bitch. He is not Italian; he is negro. The rising star of Italian soccer has become the symbol of many Italians' inability to confront their growing multiethnic identity. Gian Antonio Stella, the author of a recent book on racism and homophobia in Italy, says Italians have long ignored their brutal colonial history and discriminatory behavior toward others.

Mr. GIAN ANTONIO STELLA (Author): (Through Translator): Italians are not racist? Not true. When Italians have had to deal with others in their history, unfortunately, they have been racist. By forgetting how we behaved when we went to Africa, or that we passed the fascist race laws discriminating against certain members of Italian society who are Jewish, we are in the danger of falling backwards.

POGGIOLI: The immigrant population contributes 5 percent to Italy's GNP. Foreign workers already dominate the food sector, forcing Italians to accept the paradox that it's immigrants who are keeping alive one of the focal points of Italian identity.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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