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Rallies for, against war divide Rome


Rarely have the fissures caused by American foreign policy been on such clear display as in Rome Nov. 10, when two massive demonstrations, one pro-war and the other against, paralyzed the city. In microcosm, the events illustrated the tensions caused by the conflict, both among U.S. allies and within the Catholic world.

The first event, billed as “USA Day,” was a fervently pro-American rally organized by Italy’s political right. The second, an antiwar march that featured the burning of American, Israeli and European Union flags, was put together by labor unions, Italy’s still-strong Communist Party and a variety of leftist youth groups.

Perhaps reflecting the ambivalence of the Vatican and other church leaders, there was virtually no organized Catholic presence at either event. This is unusual in Italy, where 96 percent of the population is officially Catholic and church groups play central roles in the country’s political life.

Pope John Paul II and other Catholic leaders have repeatedly prayed for peace, but many have also expressed understanding for the American response to the terrorist attacks.

By most accounts, the antiwar march won the numbers game, drawing an estimated 100,000 people, while “USA Day” brought somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people to Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. That success came on the heels of an Oct. 14 pacifist march to Assisi, birthplace of famed peacemaker St. Francis, which attracted 250,000 people.

To date, however, burgeoning antiwar sentiment has had little impact on Italian policy. The country’s parliament Nov. 7 voted 513 to 35 to send Italian troops into combat as part of the coalition led by the United States and Great Britain.

Ostensibly, “USA Day,” an idea first floated by the right-wing Italian newspaper Il Foglio, was styled as an expression of solidarity with the victims of the terrorist attacks. A group of New York City firefighters was on hand to receive plaudits, including one whose father, also a firefighter, was among the 340 who died in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

The group had earlier been received by the pope, and presented to him the white helmet of Franciscan Fr. Mychal F. Judge, the fire department chaplain who died Sept. 11.

In fact, however, “USA Day” was widely seen in Italy as a partisan expression of support for the war and for the pro-American policies of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Piazza del Popolo was filled with people waving thousands of American flags, which had been on sale at entrances to the piazza for hours. A giant video screen repeatedly played footage of the Sept. 11 attacks, along with President George W. Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” speech and strains of “God Bless America.”

Though the majority of participants were Italians bused in from around the country by Berlusconi’s party, there were a number of other constituencies present, including a small group of Pakistani Christians pleading with the West to “save the Christians in Muslim nations.”

In his address, Berlusconi wrapped himself in the American cause. He alluded to President John F. Kennedy’s famous declaration that he felt himself a Berliner when he visited Berlin in 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall went up. Berlusconi said that in light of Sept. 11, “I am proud to say that today we are all citizens of New York.”

Most marchers at the antiwar event carried placards reading “Not in my name” to express opposition to sending troops. On one bank of the Circus Maximus, where in antiquity prisoners of war were paraded by conquering Roman generals, protestors illuminated a giant “No War” message using thousands of candles.

There were a few expressions of explicitly anti-American sentiment, including the classic exhortation “Yankee go home” and a few burned American flags.

Despite the absence of an organized Catholic presence at either event, progressive stalwarts such as Fr. Vitaliano Della Salla were among the VIPs at the antiwar march.

“The curia has me under pressure, and is threatening to take away my parish,” Della Salla told reporters afterwards. “But if I paid attention to the orders of my Talibanesque superiors, all I would have permission to do is breathe, eat and say Mass.”

Outside the march, a few other Catholic leaders were sharply critical of the war. Bishop Raffaele Nogaro of Caserta said that Catholic members of Parliament who voted to send troops did so “against conscience.”

“Mussolini wanted to participate in dividing the spoils of victory, and now we have decided to sit at the table of the great powers instead of working for peace,” Nogaro said.

The handful of American tourists drawn to “USA Day” by the flags and familiar music seemed unaware of the political overtones.

“We stumbled across it, and it was just something I had to see,” said John Gulliford, 21, of Philadelphia, who is spending a semester traveling through Europe. “The support is pretty amazing.”

Gulliford told NCR that an Italian couple had mentioned something to him about an antiwar rally. “But they said it’s just that there are still a lot of Communists in Italy,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is the Rome correspondent for NCR. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001