CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

LDS Church Wants to Be Official in Italy

by Peggy Fletcher Stack ("Salt Lake Tribune", September 9, 2000)

    The LDS Church is negotiating with the Italian government to become a "concordate," or state-sponsored church. If approved, Italy might be the first country where the Mormon Church is partially financed by taxpayers.
    With only 17,000 Italian members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is not likely the American-based religion would get much money from the deal. But it would be an important symbolic victory, said Massimo Introvigne, managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy.
    "It's like becoming a member of an elite club," Introvigne said on Wednesday in a telephone interview.
    Improving the church's status in Italy would also set an important European precedent, he said, pointing to the perception of the LDS Church as a "cult" in some parts of Germany and France.
    On Friday, LDS spokesman Dale Bills confirmed the negotiations but cautioned that "discussions are just beginning in what is expected to be a lengthy process."
    Moreover, this is just one of dozens of such efforts around the world where the church is working with governments to gain or upgrade its recognition.
    Italy's church/state laws began with a treaty Mussolini signed with the Roman Catholic Church making it a "Concordate" of the state. After World War II, that relationship was maintained in the post-fascist constitution. But since 1984, the Catholic Church has had to share government recognition with other religions operating in Italy, Introvigne said.
    Approved churches can become concordates, enjoying governmental rights similar to those of the Catholic Church.
    "The new system guarantees to all churches both more money and more freedom from state controls," Introvigne said.
    Concordates have been signed with Waldensians and Methodists (the two Protestant churches merged), Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Jews and the Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God. Earlier this year, then Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema signed concordates with the Italian Buddhist Union and the Jehovah's Witnesses.
    These, however, still need to be approved by Italy's Constitutional Commission (which will begin discussing other possible concordates next week) and by both houses of Parliament.
    Italy is one of several European nations where taxpayers are required to support state-approved churches. But unlike Germany, where nonreligious citizens are exempt, all Italian taxpayers must pay the religion levy, indicating the faith of their preference on tax forms.
    Nonreligious persons can choose a state charity or leave the box blank. The state divides undesignated tax money between the established concordates and charities in the same proportions as for designated donations.
    Every year when tax forms are due, participating churches launch massive campaigns to attract nonreligious taxpayers to their causes. Such publicity would be a boon for Mormons, Introvigne said.
    And the church's chances of getting approval look bright, said Salt Lake attorney Michael Homer, who served an LDS mission to Italy and has done extensive research on Italian Mormons.
    "Mormons were among the first religious groups to proselytize in Italy after the 1848 revolutions. They were also present before all the other concordates except Waldensians and Jews," Homer said this week. "Given this strong historical tradition and since there is very little anti-Mormon sentiment in Italy, the church makes a good concordate candidate."

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