#6 Italy – Studying religious minorities and the European Court of Human Rights in Italy “in the field”: the case of Islam

By Pasquale Annicchino

Italian public authorities do not collect official statistics on the number of religious minorities and on religious affiliation in Italy. Based on several estimates, we can claim that in Italy there are currently more than one million Muslims. Of course, as a religious minority, Muslims face the same difficulties as other religious groups. These are exacerbated today by the growing climate of fear-mongering in the context of the increasing threats from terrorist groups. As we mentioned in our preliminary report on Italy, Muslims face important difficulties as they have not signed an “intesa” (agreement) with the State. I don’t want to focus here on all the legal and socio-political issues involved in the regulation of the relationship between Muslim communities and the Italian State, or on the protection of the individual right of Muslim believers to religious freedom (I would probably need a book to address these issues; those interested can read the monograph just published by Prof. Andrea Pin). Instead, I want to share with the readers of our website two recent experiences from work “in the field” that, directly or indirectly, have also informed our research.

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Picture 1: Meeting of the Council for the Relationships with Muslim Communities at the Italian Ministry of Interior

Picture 1 refers to the first meeting of the newly created Council for the Relationship with Muslim Communities at the Ministry of Interior. This is a consultative body which produces ideas useful for the Italian authorities, and especially for the Ministry of Interior, regarding how to engage Muslim communities and find legislative solutions towards guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion. I had the honour to be appointed as a member of this body by the Minister of Interior. So far it has been a great learning  experience (I hope I made some contributions as well!) in order to understand how institutions deal with the law in this field and how they frame issues related to rights and religion. The European Court of Human Rights and its decisions have been mentioned several times in our discussions. One should bear in mind that among the Members of the Council are not only lawyers but also sociologists, theologians, and political scientists. From a lawyer’s perspective it is always interesting to see how, even in the case of experts in the field, a major contribution of judicial decisions (and therefore their indirect effect) is the creation of a storytelling in particular political controversies. At this point lawyers often try to step in to maintain the legal direct effect of the decision, but I must admit that sometimes the indirect narrative effect is much deeper than the purely legal effect.

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Picture 2: Meeting in Castelfiorentino (Florence) with leaders of Muslim communities and the Under-Secretary of State

This second picture was taken during a public conference organized in the city of Castelfiorentino (near Florence) with the presence of leaders of national Muslim communities and the Under-Secretary of State from the Ministry of the Interior. It is always enriching to discuss with the leaders of religious communities and, as in this case, with young members of the religious group. Often the language of emotions and aspirations came before the “rights-talk”, and I found it more sincere as compared to the strategic way of discussing arguments that we, as lawyers, often have. These initiatives offer the possibility to discuss informally with leaders of religious groups the way in which they face the current struggles and problems of their communities. This was also the case in Castelfiorentino, as I had the opportunity to discuss with some of these leaders the way in which they perceive the use of the judiciary (and the European Court of Human Rights) as a way to achieve and expand the protection of their right to religious freedom. On this issue a recurring argument was made by some of them according to which litigation, especially for Muslims, is probably not the best tool for them to use to advance their goals, as they don’t want to be perceived as too confrontational vis-à-vis the Italian authorities. You will find additional information in our forthcoming publications, but I can assure readers that it is always worthwhile to engage in field research and to discuss your agenda with relevant actors.


One hour after we finished our conference in Castelfiorentino, it started to rain so heavily that the next day the city was totally flooded. I hope it was not because of my first visit. Nevertheless, my friend Alessio (Mayor of Castelfiorentino) did a great job and he promised to invite us back again for another day of reflection on the protection of religious minorities.

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