My State Department Lectures in Italy: Immigration and Faith Identity in Catholic Italy

I have a newfound appreciation for how easy it is to promote and “do” interfaith and social justice work in America. Our lengthy and diverse experience with immigration, our relatively equal access to civic rights, and the penetration and thickness of social networks (online and offline) have created the perfect storm for bringing people together around shared values. This is not the case in Italy, where I am nearing the end of an incredibly busy week of presentations, lectures, and meetings with civic and religious leaders, students, NGO representatives, and a variety of other activists (and proto-activists). Each audience has been vastly different, so I’ve really gotten a 360-degree view of the situation here.

Italy has only had to “deal with” extensive immigration in the past two decades. Sudden waves of immigrants (many from North Africa and the Levant) have made themselves a huge part of the Italian population. By some counts, there are between three and five million immigrants in the country. Many of them are Muslims from various countries. They don’t look like “proper” Italians, and they certainly aren’t filling the churches on Sunday. Italy’s history as a Catholic nation-state is a weight that I feel every time I walk past an impressive cathedral – of which there are many.

My lectures and workshops have centered around a few key issues:

  • Immigrants and their path to citizenship – Italian law doesn’t allow children born here to immigrant parents to gain citizenship-by-birth, and the regular procedures for attaining citizenship are terribly convoluted and difficult, not to mention expensive.
  • Interreligious (or inter-confessionale, as it’s said in Italian) dialogue and understanding. Consider that until recently, most Italians were Catholic. There haven’t been many large-scale attempts at bringing diverse communities together.
  • The use of social networks and the social web to promote and explain the above two points – Facebook, Twitter, and their kin are used more for personal interest here than as professional organizing and publishing tools.

I’ve gotten into some deep conversations with groups here. I’m talking sweeping cultural and political change stuff. This is a place where open discrimination against a population that comprises something north of 10% of GDP is still widely accepted. The immigrants and children of immigrants (2Gs – second generation) that I’ve met with are Italian through and through, if not Catholic. They speak Italian and follow AC Milan. But they can’t vote for those who would represent their communities.

This isn’t to say that Italy is a bad place, or that the government(s) refuses to fix things. The Democratic Party, and perhaps some other regional parties, actively work to engage these issues head-on. Furthermore, Italy is still taking its first steps in the immigration debate. They haven’t had to deal with these issues until now.

For all the problems that immigrants face here, and the irreducibly important issues that my conversations with second generation Italians center around, one thing remains constant: The people who I’ve met are all very optimistic about change in the near future. They are active, educated, and committed to bringing about a new era in the history of Italy. It’s quite exciting to partner with them as we look for useful solutions and novel approaches to these issues. Watch their space.

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