The quest for religious freedom is often associated with authoritarian regimes but a recent case in Italy shows that in democracies people can also be persecuted for their beliefs. Like the former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay used to say: “You can have rule of law and no human rights”. This is precisely when international institutions become vital.
Northern Italy, known for its affluence and also mostly ruled by populist politicians, uses a restrictive regional law to target migrant churches of Brazilian, African and Romanian background. The law restricts places of worship to buildings who are recognised as a place of worship at the moment of its construction. It is not difficult to imagine that this seriously restricts faith communities. The regional authorities in Lombardia forced some 25 mostly migrant churches out of their buildings in 2012 based on this law. And this could happen again.
The Italian Christians brought this to the attention of the European Evangelical Alliance representation to the EU and to the WEA Liaison Office to the U.N. in Geneva. The latter office surfaced a human rights report for the regular human rights review of Italy. This was during the time Italy was engaged in the rescue of refugees from the Mediterranean called “Mare Nostrum”. The Italian government strongly profiled its message in the Human Rights Council based on the “Mare Nostrum” efforts and was taken by surprise about the religious restrictions imposed by their regional authorities in Northern Italy. The WEA Geneva Office, while informing the Human Rights Council about this case, within days was called from Rome.
The report to the Human Rights Council placed the law in the broader context of Italian legislation affecting faith communities, which still bears the brunt of the strong Catholic history and even includes legislation designed by the fascists in the first half of the 20th century. While many articles have already been declared unconstitutional, the laws themselves are not repealed. And recently the threshold for a faith community to obtain recognition has become even higher with a minimum requirement of 500 members.
A delegation from Italy came to lobby in Geneva and also the efforts of the European Alliance alarmed the Italian government. They approached the Italian Evangelical Alliance and the Home Minister came to visit the General Assembly of the Italian EA. More importantly the government announced that it would challenge the regional law in the constitutional court. This happened and recently the constitutional court rejected the law, calling it discriminating.
The Italian Evangelical Alliance is grateful for the ruling. At the same time it stresses that this is only a step forward towards complete religious liberty. The Italian Evangelical Alliance has noticed that due to the recent development the minimum of 500 members for recognition of faith communities will probably also be challenged. Clearly the international legal institutions did play a vital part and it can be hoped that Italy will proceed along this path and will not be intimidated by authoritarian forces to stifle citizen’s freedom.