4 1 talians aren't becoming fascists, they already are," a Roman friend tells me. He was only half joking. He and a minority here are growing concerned about
recent security policies relating to beggars, gypsies and immigrants. Silvio Berluseoni's government, which is made up of a number of former fascists, has been treating them with heavy-handedness , leading to criticism from some Vatican officials, human rights organisations and the European Union. Those policies have included plans to fingerprint all of Italy's 150,000 gypsies, to make begging illegal in some regions (including outside some churches), and to clamp down on illegal immigration. Soldiers are even patrolling the streets of major cities to give a heightened sense of security. Yet most Italians fully support the government. Tired of petty crime among some gypsies and reports of increasing violent crime perpetrated by foreigners, they see the government as coming to their rescue. No longer the burlesque clown of Italian politics, Mr Berlusconi is now riding high in the polls with a 55 per cent approval rating.
But the Church has been somewhat uneasy with Italy's path. Vatican officials have been privately expressing concerns that these policies are promoting xenophobia. Italians believe Benedict XVI has now indirectly entered the debate. On Sunday he called for an end to racism and encouraged hospitality as an "instrument of communion" for every race and culture. The Holy Father observed that many countries. as a result of social and economic problems, are experiencing protests linked to racial discrimination and asked the faithful to pray for the building of a "world built on authentic justice and true peace".
His comments followed heated reaction to an editorial in the widely respected Catholic magazine, Famiglia Cristiana. Citing a report on racism in Italy in the French magazine Esprit, it concluded: "Let's hope the suspicion is unfounded that fascism is resurfacing in our country under another guise.One senior political figure said he would sue the magazine's editor, while another denounced the publication as the "publicity arm of the Catholic Left".
The irony is that the Right is traditionally the closest political ally to the Church, particularly when it comes to family and prolife issues. Now, however, it is the political Left that is cheerleading the Church. Yet the Holy See is taking a moderate position, and stressed that the magazine is not an official arm of the Vatican or the Italian bishops. While some officials, such as Cardinal Renato Martino. are vocally wary of the government's policies, the general response has been low-key. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the bishops' conference, has held secret talks with Italy's internal affairs minister, but has said little on the matter. Leftist politicians wish the Church would speak out more, as it does on pro-life issues, but that's unlikely to happen unless the government takes a harder line. Such a heated dispute is nothing new in Italian politics, of course, which perpetually swings from one ideological extreme to the other. Some say it is also symptomatic of the Italian psyche which still exalts the iron-fisted ruler who can pull the country out of its paralysing and relentless bickering and in-fighting and make it governable. For this reason, Benito Mussolini continues to have a cult following in Italy. Memorabilia of I] Duce are often for sale in market stalls: some homes will also proudly display statues of the wartime Italian dictator, complete with Roman salute.
The policies may, of course, achieve the desired result. But if the Italian economy worsens, as some economists predict, the level of public discourse. not to mention the plight of these vulnerable and marginalised groups, could deteriorate further. Then my Roman friend won't be even half joking.
In contrast to the Vatican's reserved position, that of the Sant'Egidio lay community has been clearer. Since the 1970s it has cared for Italy's gypsy communities and agrees that a problem exists that needs to be tackled. But it favours a census rather than the discriminatory fmgerprinting, and it is deeply suspicious a the government's aims. Their pressure has helped to slightly soften the government's position. For its spokesman Claudio Beni, the real emergency is not the gypsies or the immigrants, but that society is losing a sense of mercy and compassion. "We live in a society where more and more the poor are judged and not helped. and so the weak are judged and not helped,he says.
If Sant'Egidio is right, the government is taking an easy, quick and populist option that probably won't bring lasting solutions.
Rome Correspondent: Edward Pentin E-mail: [email protected]