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Shining a light on non-Catholics in Italy

by Simona Menghini

In Italy, when someone says, I am a Christian," people understand this to mean, I am a Catholic." It’s an equation. Many Italians do not realize there are Christian churches beyond Roman Catholicism. One survey showed most Italians think George Bush, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King and Queen Elizabeth are Catholic. The same survey also indicated most Italians are not able to place Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus in the correct chronological order.
When I say, ‘I am a Protestant," people sometimes ask me the most amusing and unbelievable questions. They include: Do you believe in Jesus?" Also, Which kind of God do you believe in?" One of my favorites is, Do you celebrate Christmas?"
What makes this more amusing is that 95 percent or more of Italians are officially baptized as Catholics, meaning that between the ages of 10 and 12, they have gone through catechism in their neighborhood Catholic parish and in the public school (yes, there is a class of Catholic religion in public schools, in Italy — which also gives you extra credits for final exams). Catechism requires one to two hours of religion classes weekly for 13 years, from elementary through high school.

My church, the Waldensians, has been united with the Methodists since 1975. There are about 35,000 of us in Italy. In comparison, there are an estimated 30,000 Jews in Italy, and about 1 million Muslims. Geographically, the most Waldensians are in Piemonte, in the mountains and valleys west of Torino, where the alpine events of the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games took place.
For more than 600 years, the Waldensians were kept in a kind of ghetto" in the Pinerolo area, which includes the valleys of Val Pellice, Val Germanesca and Val Chisone. The Waldensian movement started in 1176 as a heretical movement in Lyon, France. A rich merchant named Valdo gave away all his wealth to the poor, like Francis of Assisi, and started preaching in the streets. Valdo thought people should be entitled to read the Bible for themselves, in a common language, rather than only in Latin, in a pulpit, interpreted by priests. Followers were sometimes called the Poor of Lyon," and there may have been women preachers as well.
Unlike Francis, however, Valdo disagreed with the Pope. He was summoned to Rome to give up his request for religious freedom, freedom to preach the Bible in common language, and his request that people be educated to read and write. Hence, the bonfires of the Inquisition. After Lutherans started the Reformation, the Waldensian movement joined its Calvinist stream," and were persecuted in Italy for several centuries. They often fled to Switzerland, Germany and other countries where they were not discriminated against.

In 1848, after the spread of Illuminism and liberalism, King Carlo Alberto gave Jews and Waldensians the same civil rights as other Italians. These included the right to vote and the right to apply for state government jobs. Carlo Alberto’s Patent Letters" were distributed on 17 February 1848. On that night, two messengers from Torino started bonfires in the Waldensian valleys to spread the news rapidly. People celebrated these bonfires because they could now worship freely, anywhere in Italy, instead of being confined in the Pinerolo area, and be considered as  Italian citizens, at last, despite their diverse" religious beliefs.
Since then, Waldensians have continued to light bonfires and celebrate February 17 as Freedom Day." Waldensians would like the date to become a national day for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This would benefit all people, regardless of religion or origin. This is important because the Italian government officially recognizes the Waldensians, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Jews. But many churches do not have this recognition, including the Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons. We are trying to use our small influence to peacefully fight for rights for everybody, including the rights of non-believers, who are usually discriminated against in Italy.

27 October 2009
Courtesy of The Mercury Brief, thanks to Robert Page

© 2005 Chiesa Evangelica Valdese