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Italy's first black government minister has become the target of death threats and vicious racial slurs. Cecile Kyenge was born in Congo. She became Integration Minister back in April, an appointment held as a landmark for diversity.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the ensuing debate highlights growing intolerance and what the prime minister has called a shameful chapter for Italy.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: When he presented his cabinet in April, Prime Minister Enrico Letta described Cecile Kyenge as a bridge between diverse communities. The 49-year-old ophthalmologist, long an activist in local politics for immigrant rights, was elected to parliament on the Democratic Party slate.

CECILE KYENGE: (Foreign language spoken)

BYLINE: In a campaign ad, Kyenge said her dream is that Italy will become a cosmopolitan country. But after her appointment to the cabinet, the mood of racial progress was darkened by a barrage of insults against her from xenophobic and ultra-right-wing parties.

The crescendo started with a senior official of the anti-immigrant Northern League, who accused her of trying to impose tribal traditions on Italian society. Then, a Northern League councilor, a woman, posted a photo of Kyenge on Facebook and called for her to be raped so that she could understand what victims feel. Last month, another Northern League MP, who's also vice president of the Senate, sparked further outrage when he said he loves animals.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Tigers, bears, monkeys, all of them. But when I see pictures of Kyenge, I cannot help but think of the features of an orangutan.

BYLINE: Similar slurs have appeared on ultra right-wing websites. The fascist group Forza Nuova hung nooses on lampposts denouncing Kyenge and all immigrants. The latest incident was at a political rally when an unidentified spectator threw bananas at the stage while Kyenge was making a speech. She responded with what have become characteristic aplomb and understatement, calling it sad and a waste of food, considering the economic crisis.

Kyenge remembers that when she first arrived in Italy, as a medical student 30 years ago, racist sentiments were directed mostly by northerners against southern Italians. But in the last 15 years, Italy has absorbed large numbers of migrants. They are now some eight percent of the total population. And Italians, Kyenge says, were not prepared.

KYENGE: (Through Translator) There has been a failure of education. Italians were not helped in learning about others, people with different skin color and facial characteristics. Migrants are not seen as diversity that can enrich but diversity which instills fear.

BYLINE: Kyenge arrived in Italy from Congo on a student visa, paid for her university studies by working as a caregiver and now practices ophthalmology in Modena, where she lives with her Italian husband and two teenage daughters. She's preparing a citizenship bill that would automatically give Italian citizenship to children born here of resident immigrant parents.

While this is normal in many countries, Italy still has one of the most restrictive citizenship laws in the West. And there are at least half a million children born in Italy of non-Italian parents who are not guaranteed health coverage.

The Immigration Minister has to tackle a rising wave of intolerance that has led to a 61 percent increase in racist and discriminatory incidents in just one year. Some of the worst incidents occur on the soccer field, where black players are taunted with racist epithets and rowdy spectators throw bananas at them. Mario Balotelli, the Italian-born son of Ghanaian parents and a star player, is often the target of the chant, there is no such thing as a black Italian.

The economic crisis and rising unemployment are exacerbating racial tensions. But Cecile Kyenge is an optimist and fond of the Italian society that welcomed her and gave her so many opportunities.

KYENGE: (Through Translator) I'm proud to be Italian and it's time to make the other voice of Italy heard, the better Italy.

BYLINE: Kyenge is well aware that Italy, with its aging population and one of the lowest birth rates in the world, sorely needs new immigrants.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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