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VATICAN LETTER Jul-3-2008 (710 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Move to fingerprint Gypsies reminds many of Italy's darker days

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In mid-April Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister of Italy in a campaign focused on increasing security and fighting crime, particularly by cracking down on illegal immigration.

In addition to strengthening local government's power to expel undocumented foreigners, the Berlusconi government has focused its crime-fighting efforts on the estimated 140,000 Roma and Sinti -- Gypsies -- who live in the country.

At least half the Gypsies are Italian citizens.

Within a month of his election, Berlusconi's government was promising to dismantle unauthorized Roma camps, leading to expressions of concern by Vatican officials and a variety of religious leaders in Italy.

The concern became outrage in late June when Interior Minister Roberto Maroni announced plans to fingerprint every Gypsy in Italy, including children.

Maroni said the plan would enable the government to identify each person and check whether he or she was in Italy legally. Children were included in the plan, he said, because it was the only way to keep track of whether their parents were sending them to school or were forcing them out on the streets to beg or steal.

Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, described his reaction as one of "surprise, unease and sadness."

While he said he supported efforts to protect children from exploitation and to send them to school, he said he was convinced there were other ways to accomplish that.

"In Catholic morality," he said, "not only must the aim be good, but the means for reaching it must be."

The fingerprinting plan is blatantly discriminatory, he said.

The Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's top-selling newsweekly, said the plan was evidence of a "creeping racism" and, in fact, meant that the children were being "enrolled in a list of 'probable future criminals.'"

The magazine expressed concern over the fact that several government ministers who ran as faithful Catholics have not opposed Maroni publicly, but said it was not surprised that Alessandra Mussolini, the head of the Italian Parliament's commission for children and granddaughter of the former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, did not because "ethnic and religious indexing are part of her family's DNA."

Sixty years after the fascist dictatorship ended and Italy's racial laws were abolished, "Italy still hasn't faced up to its tragic responsibility -- we are not ashamed enough," the magazine said. The fingerprinting and cataloguing of the Gypsy children is "like when the Jewish children were identified with the yellow star on their sleeves."

Just as the debate was beginning in mid-May, the president of the Sant'Egidio Community, a Catholic lay movement based in Rome, published a book of essays about the Roma and Sinti in Italy. The Sant'Egidio Community provides education, pastoral and material assistance in the Roma camps.

In his book, Marco Impagliazzo said the history of European Gypsies is a centuries-long story of persecution.

"It is not easy to identify another minority -- other than the Jews, with obvious differences -- who for such a long time and in a constant way" have been the object of violence, discrimination and repression, he said.

Writing about the book in the Vatican newspaper, Anna Foa, a historian specializing in European Judaism, said the use of the term "anti-Gitanism" describes the attitude of hostility toward all Gypsies in the same way that anti-Semitism refers to hostility toward all Jews.

"The Gypsies have in common with the Jews the fact of being a people without a territory in addition to having shared their fate in the Nazi concentration camps where somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 Gypsies were exterminated," she said.

In her article for L'Osservatore Romano, Foa said no one is ignoring the problem of criminality among certain groups of Gypsies, "but you fight crime by arresting criminals, not by considering as criminals an entire group of people."

Famiglia Cristiana made the same point, adding, "There is only one way to ensure Roma children are not sent out to steal and that is to send them to school. Yes, a decree is needed, one that would ensure that every morning a police bus would pass through the camps and pick the children up," delivering them to school.


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