Italy’s bias against evangelical churches | WORLD
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Rendering unto Caesar

Fight over property taxes highlights bias against evangelicals in Italy

LEFT: San Silvestro Church. RIGHT: A worship service at Breccia di Roma. San Silvestro Church: Alamy; Breccia di Roma: Photo by Linda Acunto

Rendering unto Caesar
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PASTOR LEONARDO DE CHIRICO sits behind a desk covered in books that almost fills the shared space he uses for his office. He adjusts his glasses and strokes his goatee when he talks. His external serenity belies the David and Goliath battle his small congregation faces.

On May 31, Breccia di Roma, a church of 30 members, will go back to court for the third time to defend its rights against the Italian tax authority. The church is trying to prove that its building, used as a place of worship, is entitled to a tax exemption like any other religious facility in the country. For the third time, it will rack up legal fees that exceed its small budget.

Though this case involves one small congregation, it has the potential to affect other evangelical churches across Italy. If the country’s Supreme Court agrees with the tax agency, almost no other evangelical church will be eligible for a tax exemption. That would be especially detrimental to evangelical churches in cities like Rome that feel called to shine the light of the gospel in the city center, where building space is limited and Roman Catholic churches maintain the only historic religious presence.

The gist of the tax agency’s case against Breccia di Roma is in its statement of appeal: “The property, although used as a place of worship, does not have the intrinsic characteristics of real estate units traditionally used for the public exercise of worship.” In other words, it doesn’t look like a place of worship, according to the authorities.

But even before they enter the building, visitors can easily see what it’s used for. A bulletin board in the window contains a list of church events: Sunday services, a children’s art workshop, a monthly practical theology class. Just inside the door, roll-up banners include titles from the current sermon series: “Art and the Gospel. A series of eleven sermons on the role of art in the Bible.” On the right, a small bookcase displays Bibles and Christian books.

The main room is furnished with simple, lightweight plastic chairs; a ­lectern; and a small, easily transportable table. Downstairs, a library containing dozens of volumes provides theology students with ample material and a place to study and collaborate. Pastors and church planters also use it as a training center.

That’s what the tax agency inspectors found when they showed up on Nov. 21, 2019, to check that what had once been a lucrative downtown store had indeed become a place of worship.

They took photos and notes that day, and De Chirico didn’t think they found any problems. But then came a notification that the tax agency wanted the church to continue paying taxes as a place of business—up to almost 8,000 euros ($8,677) a year, a disproportionate amount for a small community with no business activity whatsoever.

The reasoning—according to the inspectors—was that the building did not resemble a “conventional” place of worship. As evidence, they attached to their report photos of some represen­tative worship spaces: San Silvestro Church, the Grand Mosque of Rome, and the Rome Synagogue. All of those are exceedingly ornate edifices, heavy-laden with decoration, altars, and candles. Since Breccia looked nothing like that, the report concluded, it did not deserve its tax-exempt status.

“You can see that they have a Roman Catholic understanding of religious space in mind and have projected it onto ours,” De Chirico said. “It’s not a bureaucratic issue, it’s a religious freedom issue.”

Breccia di Roma

Breccia di Roma Photo by Linda Acunto

THE ITALIAN CONSTITUTION guarantees religious freedom, and in theory, the law is the same for every religious confession. However, Roman Catholicism has been the majority religion in Italy for centuries, and other religious groups struggle to have their rights respected.

“The constitution recognizes religious freedom, although its practical application for non-Catholic groups is still a slow process,” De Chirico said. “They are often harassed by unjust laws and obtuse officials, especially when they aspire to have a higher public profile and visibility.”

Visibility is something Breccia has always aspired to. From its founding in 2010, the church’s mission has been to live out the gospel in such a way that it transforms the city of Rome. The word breccia means “breach” in English, as in the opening of a door in a city fortress, and the church’s prayer was for it to be an opening for the gospel in Rome, and from there to all Italy.

With this vision, members of the small church immediately began to pray for the Lord to provide them a suitable space to serve as a hub for gospel work. Five years later, on Oct. 30, 2015, De Chirico emailed his congregants with the exciting news: God had provided a location in the historic heart of Rome, just minutes on foot from the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

That day carried a special significance, De Chirico noted in his email, because it coincided nearly to the day with the anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses denouncing theological error and calling for a return to the truth of the gospel. “Today, Rome needs this property more than ever,” De Chirico concluded. “If the Lord grants it to us, it will serve that very purpose.” It was the first time in 100 years that an evangelical church or organization had purchased worship space within the old center of Rome.

After months of prayer, fundraising, and extensive renovation, the 150-square-meter space (1,615 square feet) officially became the church’s “home” in May 2017.

Valeria Marzano participated in a group tasked with intentionally reflecting on how to furnish the space. Its members took their task seriously and pondered the theology of each facet of the layout and decor, planning carefully to create a space that in the use of colors and architecture would simultaneously welcome outsiders and promote community in all the aspects of church life. “Church spaces speak of the church that occupies them,” reads the document the group drafted. “Before words, it is the environment one enters that communicates something. … The space will be the church’s calling card.” That concept is especially relevant in a city like Rome, where ornate Roman Catholic churches abound because for centuries Catholicism has used architecture to convey its theological vision of the church. To emphasize the distinction of its own theology, Breccia wanted to keep its worship space stylistically clean and flexible.

“We decided to furnish the space in a simple and functional way so that it could be multipurpose and a blessing for the Roman and Italian evangelical people in different ways,” Marzano said. The church’s flexible furnishings have enabled it to host a variety of events over the years, including Sunday worship, art exhibitions, theology courses, cultural meetings, children’s workshops, and moments of congregational fellowship.

The intentionality of the space design made the tax agency’s report feel even more like a slap in the face.

Non-Catholic groups are often harassed by unjust laws and obtuse officials, especially when they aspire to have a higher public profile and visibility.

THE LOCAL COURT sided with the church in the original case brought in 2021. But the tax agency appealed in 2022 to a regional court. That court also agreed with Breccia. After losing twice, the tax agency decided to make one, final attempt: It appealed to the Supreme Court of Cassation.

The court will convene on May 31 and announce its decision within 20 days. In the meantime, the church has had to invest funds for legal fees and explain in court that evangelical worship does not require “intrinsic features” of the worship space to be celebrated, and that each faith denomination has the right to organize its spaces as it sees fit.

“As Protestants, our spaces are simply laid with no altars because we worship our God in spirit and truth according to His Word,” De Chirico said.

Giacomo Ciccone is president of the Italian Evangelical Alliance. It has worked for years to protect religious freedom in Italy. Ciccone said the tax agency’s persistence against such a small church shows the difficulty of being a religious minority in Italy.

“It is important to note that this issue extends beyond the walls of Rome’s Breccia,” he said. Ciccone has followed similar cases across Italy, where local authorities have closed other houses of worship simply because the country does not have adequate laws to protect religious minorities. “The regulations created to hinder the opening of new places of worship make it increasingly difficult to both open new places and maintain existing ones,” he said.

On its website, Breccia points to another famous “breach” in Italian history. In 1870, the Italian army breached the wall of Rome, then governed by the pope. The military action reduced the pontifical state to its current size (the area of the Vatican) and severely reduced the temporal powers of the Roman Catholic Church. “We pray that God will be pleased to use the church to confront the powers of the city with the claims of the gospel,” the website goes on to say.

That kind of mission in such a historic place makes Breccia a ready target for spiritual warfare, and De Chirico says church members feel it. “We know there will always be some form of opposition to gospel work. Ultimately, it’s not about us: It’s about the honor of our God and the glory of His gospel.”

Chiara Lamberti

Chiara is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute Europe course.


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