“Forbidden to pray”: stories of religious intolerance in the republican Italy

Vietato pregare

I consider “Forbidden to pray” a key book. The investigation we carried out with Agenzia Radicale and Quaderni Radicali from 2012 to date, but also the action of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief are, in my view, directly inter-related to this text. It explains and confirms a number of data and analysis that we’ve had the opportunity to deepen with Giuseppe Rippa, Raffaella Di Marzio and others, and which are well summarized in the Parliamentary Question that Marco Perduca of the Radical Party introduced in 2012 to seek clarification on the Anti-Cult Team. Clarification that, of course, he never received.

The book by Andrea Maori offers the connecting thread between the Fascist model and the current situation. It is enough to follow the line it tracks to have the necessary tools to analyze the continuity of the regime in terms of secularism and freedom (but also equal opportunities) of belief and conscience. The rights of believers, non-believers and atheists, in Italy, were never on the same level: this is obvious. We can say that, unfortunately, the Fascist model has partly survived.

The regime puts the Catholic Church in a position of absolute superiority, with the Lateran Treaty; the ban of other confessions, started with the Buffarini-Guidi Circular of '35; these groups, called "cults", are subject to strict control of the O.V.R.A. (Note of Translator: OVRA is an acronym for Opera Vigilanza Repressione Antifascista, the Fascist political and secret police established under Mussolini regime); and it purposely establishes a crime, the crime of plagiarism, with Rocco’s code. We cannot state that these aspects of the Fascist model have disappeared: the Concordat, the allowed faiths, the police control on cults, plagiarism.

The Concordat has been revised, but the Catholic Church still enjoys a position of absolute supremacy over other creeds, non-believers and atheists. The legislation on allowed cults is partly still in force. There is the system of the Treaties, that is, a religious group must please the Government if it wants to get recognized, otherwise it is regulated by the law on allowed faiths. With regard to police control, just read this book to understand that it has been maintained, and in a poorly egalitarian way.

In recent years we have gone further: today we even have an Anti-Cult Squad, which referent is a Catholic priest, known to Radicals for being the first to lash out at Beppe Englaro, as well as for the way he did it. He is not only a priest of the majority confession, but anything but a benchmark in terms of secularism. And about plagiarism, abolished thanks to Marco Pannella's Radicals and intellectuals such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, for thirty years somebody tried to reintroduce it in the form of "crime of mental manipulation", again through the propaganda on cults: even in this legislature a bill was resubmitted, bill #190.

"Forbidden to pray" is a book you should read if you want to understand what happened between yesterday and today, and how the Fascist model managed to survive this far. Note that there is a major shift in the 1980s, when immediately after the revision of the Concordat, the first anti-cult group of the Vatican, GRIS, was established. Similarly, soon after the abolition of the crime of plagiarism the first "secular" anti-cultist group is established, struggling to reinstate the crime of plagiarism with the support, sorry to say, of some members of the Communist Party of that time.

In the 1980s, in addition to the revision of the Concordat and the abolition of the crime of plagiarism, the first treaties with the State are introduced. To understand what has happened in the forty years that separate this phase since the fall of the Fascist regime, it is essential to read the documents that Andrea Maori has painstakingly collected and masterfully explained.

Because, as we said, there is a thread that connects the Fascist model to the current situation. We see in the book by Andrea Maori how, initially, in the fifties and sixties, the "cults" that the police and the Home Affairs must keep under control are Evangelical Christians, the same "Pentecostals" that Fascism had banned and who were exterminated in concentration camps. The text tells us that the tension with non-Catholic Christians will be such as to cause diplomatic incidents with friendly countries like the United States, a Protestant majority.

In the documents we read about zealous priests and law enforcement hard-liners and representatives, ready to signal the pastor praying too loudly or to hold unauthorized meetings. But if we follow the thread that the documents trace, we see how after the mid-70 the focus shifts from Evangelical groups to spiritual Oriental movements, from Hare Krishna to Osho, on which, once again, Marco Pannella alone intervenes. The only ones who never changed their status are the Jehovah's Witnesses, which are still referred to as "destructive cult", "sect", "abusing group" in the reports issued by the anti-cult associations cooperating with the State police.

Hence the stigma of "cults" starts to look like what we are used to see today. You get to the eighties with this situation: the need to revise the Concordat and to recognize non-Catholic Christians; the crime of plagiarism, which is suddenly abolished; and a number of religious movements that are now popping up in our country, from Yoga to Scientology groups. Together with the Jehovah's Witnesses, these are the movements that will deserve the control by the police, thanks to the complicity of a part of the Church that obstinately refuses the post-counciliar Church, part of the Parliament that even more stubbornly rejects the post-constitutional Parliament and, of course, of the anti-cult groups.

These groups discover the bargain of the century, meaning, they receive money for an emergency that does not actually exist: so much true that no one is able to tell what a cult actually is: the day before yesterday the Pentecostals, Sai Baba yesterday, today the Church of Scientology. We are dealing with a definition that changes meaning depending on who wears it, which is in no way functional to tackle the social problems that may concern the religious sphere of the individual or organizations. On the other hand, though, this is very functional to the regime, because it can apply to anyone who, for one reason or another, one wants to hit, annihilate, put aside.

Therefore in the eighties we come to a situation where it is easy to charge everybody as a cult, and at the same time, to the collapse of the first Republic. This is a vital element, because the only real element of discontinuity between the First and the Second Republic is the surge in the level of quackery. Then predictably we already come to the early nineties with a history of unfounded cases of cults that will continue for almost thirty years, mostly to the detriment of innocent people: who was accused of having a Satanic Cult and actually that cult did not exist, who was part of a religious group pilloried as a dangerous cult and then completely acquitted...

I mean, 30 years of gross miscarriages of Justice and propaganda, from where the anti-cult associations and services will spring, which in turn will create the humus for the constant reworking of the Bill for the crime of mental manipulation, until the creation of the Anti-Cult Team, coordinated by the priest above mentioned, and in constant cooperation with representatives of the anti-cultists world. Inevitably, these take on such a power that, through a simple alert, they may investigate a person or a group saying, "I have prepared a study, I collected dozens of cases, that movement there is a cult and it lays members in a state of incapacity through mental manipulation techniques", provoking the immediate intervention of the law enforcement bodies. It seems incredible, but it happened.

We are therefore faced with two basic problems: on the one hand, the attack to the secular nature of the State, the absence of equal opportunities and of an effective protection of freedom of religion or belief. Secondly, the fact that there is a lack of tools to combat abuses in the religious sphere and protect citizens, because everything is buried by propaganda. You come to the paradox that we pay to support the anti-cultists team, without having clear what it's for, how much it costs and how it operates, while the police doesn’t even have the money for the gasoline of their cars. It was eventually the main question which Perduca placed to the Government when he presented the Parliamentary Question, obviously.

In this entire scene – despite attempts to discuss it since the eighties – a law on religious freedom still does not see the light. Italy is therefore in a more serious situation than it seems, in a time when tensions, from a religious point of view, have become a crucial issue both from a social and geopolitical perspective, and we don't have the tools to address them. It is enough to think of the “anti-mosques” law wanted by Maroni in Lombardy, which not only has damaged all places of worship, including those groups that have reached a regular treaty with the State such as the Evangelicals, but it is indeed emblematic of the way with which the problem is approached.

It is in fact obvious that closing mosques and force the Islamists to come together in a basement is a way to help international terrorism and to hinder its fight: though this is our frame of mind, a model son of the Fascist time that has never failed. Then you need awareness in this regard: also the Federation was established with this goal, and works like the one presented here, represent decisive steps.

I would like to conclude with a simple consideration: we are experiencing a moment of awful international tension, where religion has unfortunately a central role. On the other hand, however, this is also a beautiful historic moment for interreligious dialogue: Catholics and Evangelicals who pray together, the millenary wound between Jews and Christians showing signs of recovery: in fact, we can say that they have never been so close ... And, last but not least, for the first time there has been a clear stance by the majority of the Islamic community against international terrorism, since it can't be ignored in relation to the seriousness of the threat.

Needless to mention the recent invitation to the Pope to travel and visit the mosque of Rome, and his fraternal reaction. Even the dialogue between believers and non-believers is going through, I think, a new phase, and you can't avoid mentioning that the most popular Catholic figure and the most popular anticlerical figure of the last decade in fact corresponds to that of the Holy Father. It is an extraordinary thing, which one cannot ignore, although rarely emphasized.

So I believe, partly by virtue of the prestige and interest which sparked the recent appointment of F.O.B. at Montecitorio thanks to Hon. Ciocchetti, that if the drama of the moment shows us the problems and magnitude of historical tensions that we face, it is also true that these elements overcoming historical tensions indicate to us the direction in which we should proceed.

So it is in this context that we must situate the odious Fascist residues of the past, never eliminated altogether, and the reactionary attempts to maintain or restore at any cost this type of approach. If Italy presents itself to this inevitable appointment with history without overcoming its past history, it will show to be inadequate in every way.

The horrors of terrorism, the tragedy of migrants: in all this the fundamental human right to freedom of religion and conscience plays a key role. Not being adequate in protecting and properly limit this exercise of individual freedom exposes the country to the risk of being unprepared. Conversely, taking the right path I think we can prepare a better future based on these elements. We hope that the institutions will listen and that fundamental moments of reflection like this one can occur with growing frequency.

Camillo Maffia