Religion Takes Center Stage in Italian Elections

Campaigning for next April's general elections in Italy has already begun. The latest actor in the political area is a newly assertive Catholic church. For the first time in decades, religious issues will be center stage as the politicians try to woo Italian voters.

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To Italy now, where campaigning for next April's election is under way. And for the first time in decades, the Catholic Church is playing a major role. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, religious issues are taking center stage as politicians try to woo Italian voters.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

In recent months, Italian bishops have spoken out on a wide range of issues: against proposals to legalize unwed couples, both heterosexual and gay; against marriages between Catholics and Muslims; and even against constitutional reform that gives greater powers to Italian regions. But the bishops have been most vocal against abortion, which has been legal in Italy for nearly three decades. And in a country with one of the world's lowest birth rates, politicians have been listening. Health Minister Francesco Storace, a member of the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance, recently strongly condemned the 1978 law's application.

Mr. FRANCESCO STORACE (Health Minister, Italy): (Through Translator) Since abortion was legalized, there have been 4,300,000 children never born. If preventative norms had been applied in just 10 percent of those cases, we would have 400,000 more children in Italy today.

POGGIOLI: Days earlier Storace had won praise from Italian bishops for his proposal to deploy activists from a 20,000-strong Catholic pro-life movement in government-funded family planning and abortion counseling critics. Dr. Luigi Chersosimo(ph), president of the Association of Gynecologists at those clinics, is strongly opposed.

Dr. LUIGI CHERSOSIMO (President, Association of Gynecologists): (Through Translator) I think it is absurd. The church is free to say what it wants, but not to interfere inside our clinics. What the government should do is give us the forms to do outreach in poor communities. Then there will be a drop in abortions, thanks to greater use of contraceptives.

POGGIOLI: Health Minister Storace has also tried to block use of the RU-486 abortion pill currently in use in about 30 countries. That move came as the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano described the pill as an example of `science in the service of death.' And the archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, compared use of the pill with King Herod's massacre of the innocents. The left-of-center daily La Repubblica said recently that the Italian Bishops Conference has emerged as `Italy's newest political party.' It said, `It's the most powerful, most influential, most courted and most feared in Italy.'

Last June, Italian bishops scored a victory in a referendum that blocked attempts to dismantle Italy's restrictive law on in vitro fertilization and embryo research. In September, in a move seen as a sign of concern over perceived church interference in politics, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi unexpected celebrated the 125th anniversary of the conquest of Rome, the victory that gave birth to modern secular Italy and put an end to centuries of Vatican temporal power. But the secretary-general of the Bishops Conference, Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, rejects accusations that the bishops crossed the line separating church and state.

Monsignor GIUSEPPE BETORI (Italian Bishops Conference): (Through Translator) We are not afraid to overexpose ourselves politically when we deal with problems that concern the basic social issues affecting human beings.

Ms. EMMA BONINO (Radical Party): I call it clerical harassment.

POGGIOLI: Emma Bonino is a leader of the Italian Radical Party, which champions human rights and was instrumental in promoting legalization of divorce and abortion in the '70s.

Ms. BONINO: The only leader existing is the church, and they really are present in everything. And what is even more worrying is that the political leadership do not show any kind of resistance.

POGGIOLI: Over the last decade or so, the Italian Catholic Church has reaped numerous state benefits, thanks to both left- and right-wing parties. Since 1990, the state has collected from taxpayers a total of about $10 billion that have gone to the Catholic Church. Private Catholic schools have been granted state subsidies. Teachers of optional religion classes in public schools are chosen by the church but paid by the state. And Vatican-owned property is exempt from real estate taxes. The Berlusconi government has proposed that in the future all church properties leased for commercial purposes be exempt from taxation. Now the major goal of the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Camillo Ruinni, is to convince Italian lawmakers to pass laws that reflect Catholic beliefs.

Cardinal CAMILLO RUINNI (President, Italian Bishops Conference): (Through Translator) The first and real concern of lawmakers should be giving support to legitimate families.

POGGIOLI: In October, Pope Benedict XVI went even further. In a letter to the speaker of the Italian Senate, he said, `The fundamental rights of the human being are not created by lawmakers but are inscribed in the very nature of the human person and hark back to the creator.' But Italian citizens, 95 percent of whom are nominally Catholic, seem less susceptible than politicians to church appeals. A survey by a major polling agency published Sunday showed that the majority of Italians oppose Catholic Church attempts to influence political decisions. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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