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A Disturbing Issue for Italian Jewry: Teaching Catholicism in Public Schools

The Quadrennial Congress of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UIJC) is focussing on what is perhaps the most disturbing issue for Italian Jewry since the last Congress four years ago — the teaching of the Catholic religion in the Italian school system.

Classes on Catholicism at all grade levels were introduced as a result of the 1985 accord between the Education Ministry and the Catholic Episcopal Conference. While they are voluntary, there is no feasible alternative for the very small minority of Jewish and other children who do not want to participate.

The problem is high on the agenda of the three-day conference attended by delegates from the Jewish communities of Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence, Naples, Venice and many smaller cities all over Italy. Youngsters from the Italian Jewish Youth Federation handed out pamphlets at the entrance to the Palazzo Barberini, where the conference is taking place, calling for repeal of the 1985 accords.

NUMEROUS CASE HISTORIES COMPILED

The UIJC has compiled numerous case histories testifying to the ill-effects of the new law on non-Catholic children, particularly in nursery and kindergarten. It is especially alienating for Jewish children who cannot, at their age, understand why they must be separated from their friends while Catholic ideology is taught, the UIJC points out.

Vittorio Ottolenghi, one of the four Jewish representatives on the eight-member “Mixed Commission” (government and UIJC) which is charged with revising and updating the 1930 treaty between the UIJC and the Italian state, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that there is hope the present law may be suspended immediately and revised within 2-3 years, at least as it applies to nursery and kindergarten.

Italian Jews have been joined in protest by the Waldensian Protestants. Concerned Moslem parents in Italy also reportedly intend to make themselves heard through the channels of Arab Embassies in Rome.

The Congress is the gathering where every four years Italian Jews elect their official representatives, plan their future and try to gain perspective on their past.

DIGNITARIES ADDRESS OPENING SESSION

The opening ceremonies Monday were honored by the presence of President Francesco Cossiga, the first Italian chief of state ever to attend such an event. It was addressed by Foreign Minister Giulio Andreotti who spoke for the human rights of Soviet Jews, and by the 1986 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, who traced the intellectual and moral contributions of Italian Jewry through the centuries, symbolized by the history of her own family.

At the last Congress, in 1982, the UIJC was in a budgetary crisis which threatened such communal services as the Jewish schools in Rome where nearly half of the country’s 40,000 Jews live. The community was then also divided over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

But a better atmosphere prevailed at Monday’s opening. The financial situation has improved and Israel is once again the focus of Italian Jewish unity. A matter up for discussion is a revision of the statutes of the self-governing UIJC which, since the last Congress, has been transformed from a public institution with obligatory registration and Jewish community taxation for all Jews, into a private, voluntary association.

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