Mosaic Europe

Italy’s State Secularism: full of contradictions

, by Rebecca Wenmoth

Italy's State Secularism: full of contradictions

Favoring Catholicism over Islam, from school benches to mosques’ building permits, Italy seems to have given its very own twist to the concept of religious neutrality. With this article, Rebecca Wenmoth finely displays the incoherences which puts at odds the Roman nation’s official state secularism with its effective implementation.

It may be surprising to some that Italy is —officially— a secular country. Most Italians identify as Christians (80.8%), followed by nonaffiliated people (13.4%), with the third-largest religious group being Muslims (4.9%).

Roadside Catholic shrines can be found ubiquitously both in cities and rurally, and Rome is said to be the city with the most churches in the world. Eight out of the twelve national holidays mandated by the government are Christian, such as Easter day, Christmas day and Epiphany. The Christian Democrat Party dominated politics for about fifty years. However, the state maintains it is secular (since 1929 - when the Vatican City was recognised as a separate, independent state). Italy’s relationship with secularism seems to be complicated. Its constitution protects freedom of religious expression, worship (both Article 19), and ensures all religions and their adherents are equal (Articles 3 and 8). It is also party to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on human rights, which include religious freedom. Despite this, it is reported to have an ‘officially preferred religion’. Two important examples of this contradiction are: the law obliging schools to hang crucifixes on classroom walls, and the hyper-restrictive mosque-building laws. Whether the European Union supports or condemns these contradictions is ambiguous.

Mosque-building laws

Italy’s constitution states that citizens can exercise their religion in public or private (Article 19), and the right to practice one’s religion in a specifically designated building has been upheld by the Italian Constitutional Court [1]; in compliance with European Court of Human Rights’ (ECHR) legal precedents [2]. However, Italy lacks national laws enforcing the specificity of these requirements, which leaves the determination of which places of worship are built and which one are not to the urban planning regulations of the local administration. This legal limbo results in permissiveness varying from one municipality to another, leading to the construction of only eight official mosques in the entire country, for a Muslim population estimated in 2016 to be of 2,870,000 believers. Some administrations block requests for mosque planning permission by burying them in bureaucracy, others pass regulations with vague wording. In Lombardy, for example, due to regulation passed by the local authority in 2015, the conditions for building a place of worship were, among others, that ‘there must be a widespread, organised and stable presence of a religion in a certain municipality’ and a ‘respect for the local landscape’. Since neither of these conditions are defined or quantified, this leaves the administration free to use these regulations to justify blocking the construction of new mosques. Not to mention the paternalistic dimension of leaving to the government’s evaluation to determine how much ‘need’ there is for a mosque, instead of calling upon religious communities to express the need of a new place of worship, for themselves. And if the local authority were truly worried about a lack of ‘respect’ for the ‘local landscape’, why is it specifically in the mosque-building regulation, and not a broader regulation applicable to all planning permission submissions?

To be officially recognised as a religion in Italy, a type of agreement called a concordat must be signed with the state, which grants various privileges to religions — such as the right to build official places of worship. To date, Islam has not received such recognition from the government, despite being the second largest religion in Italy after Christianity. This is frequently used as ‘proof’ of Italian Muslims’ ‘uncooperative’ nature, and many politicians have used it to justify the idea that mosques should not be allowed in Italy. For instance, Valerio Mancini, advisor to the right-wing party Lega Nord, after voting for a bill for a moratorium on mosque-building in the region of Umbria, said it was Muslims who are ‘uncompliant’, rather than the Italian state, because “the Muslim religion is not capable of referring a representative to sign the concordat” (author’s translation). What this suggests is that the Italian government treats Islam as one homogenous religion in requiring one representative for Islam despite the fact that Shia and Sunni Muslims (as well as other denominations) do not agree on everything. The hypocrisy here is clear, as Italy maintains concordats with 8 different denominations of Christianity (not including Catholicism), and two different representatives of Buddhism.

Crucifixes in public schools

The legal basis for the requirement for Italian schools to display a crucifix in their classrooms emerged in the 1920s, when schools were required to display the national flag, a portrait of the King Emmanuel II, and a crucifix. These laws have never been repealed, indeed, several judgements from various different Italian Courts have upheld them, with the Ministry of Education even recommending that school governors ensure the presence of crucifixes in classrooms. Therefore, it is completely legal that many schools still display crucifixes along with the Italian flag, despite schools being institutions of the state, fully or partially funded by it. Many schools are also used as polling stations, complicating the matter further. Whether the European Union supports Italy’s position on crucifixes in schools is ambiguous. One lawsuit against the government on this topic Lautsi v. Italy (2005) was heard in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In 2009 the ECHR ruled the law violated rights to education and religious freedom. However in 2011 it reversed its decision and declared individual states can decide whether crucifixes should be hung in classrooms. Another crucifix case, brought by Adel Smith in 2003, ruled similarly. These cases provoked much media attention and controversy from both sides of the debate, commented on by both Prime Minister Berlusconi, and the sitting President Napolitano. Even famous scholar Umberto Eco weighed in: “I call upon Adel Smith, therefore, and intolerant fundamentalists: understand and accept the practices and customs of your host country” (author’s translation) [3]. Some of the justification for upholding the crucifixes in classrooms law comes from the ‘secularisation of the crucifix’, hinging on the idea that the crucifix is a cultural symbol important to Italian culture, as well as a religious one, and some judges arguing “the secular nature of the modern state (…) was prompted in part (…) by a more or less conscious reference to the founding values of Christianity” [4]. However, when considering religious symbols worn by individuals in public, one judge ruled the wearing of an Islamic headscarf as being a religious symbol. Thus, the Italian state seems to favour freedom to express one’s religion, allowing religious symbols to be displayed, yet does not allow Islamic symbols the same status of ‘cultural importance’ that prevents the crucifix from being removed or criticised.

To conclude, then, very clear bias is apparent in the refusal to allow mosques to be built in Italy, due, in part, to the requirement for religions to be registered with the government to have the ‘right’ to build places of worship. The European Union has not moved to defend Italian Muslims’ freedom of worship, indeed in Switzerland, for example, the ECHR upheld a ruling to ban minarets. Catholicism is also prioritised in classrooms with crucifixes still bafflingly allowed in public schools, under the auspice of being a national unifier, and justified by the explanation that the Italian secular state was founded on Christian values. Highly alienating for any Italians who are not Christian, therefore. The ECHR ruling allowing states to decide secular matters for themselves seems to show the EU washing its hands of the issue of state bias against minority religions. The EU has been criticised before for not adequately defending religious freedoms, and these two Italian cases show there is still work to be done.

[1] Ruling no. 59/1958 and no. 195/1993

[2] Manoussakis et al. vs Greece, 16/9/1996

[3] Essere laici in un mondo multiculturale, published in La Repubblica, 29 October 2003

[4] TAR Veneto, 17 March 2005, decision No. 1110


Astengo, Francesca. “Freedom of Religion Crucified? Secularism and Italian Schools before the European Court of Human Rights”, Politique européenne, vol. no 41, no. 3, 2013, p. 12-39.

Chiodelli, Francesco. “Religion and the city: A review on Muslim spatiality in Italian cities”, Cities, vol. 44, 2015, p. 19-28.

Conti, Bartolomeo. “L’émergence de l’islam dans l’espace public”, Archives de sciences sociales des religions, vol. 158, 2012, p. 119-136.

Ferari, Alessandro. “Civil Religion in Italy: A Mission Impossible.” George Washington International Law Review, vol. 41, no. 4, 2010, p. 839-860.

Selmini, Rossella & Stefania Crocitti. “Controlling Immigrants: The Latent Function of Italian Administrative Orders”. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, vol. 23, 2017, p. 99-114

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