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Why Italy refuses to recognize the world’s fifth-largest religion

July 26, 2012 | By

  • The small ceremonial daggers that Sikhs must carry at all times are such an important part of their religion that the London Olympic organizers allow them to be worn during events. So why does Italy have such a problem with them?

By Flavia Amabile

LA STAMPA/Worldcrunch

A smorgasbord of kirpans and swords (asleen_kaur)

A smorgasbord of kirpans and swords (asleen_kaur)

ROME – Should a boy scout walking around with a Swiss-army knife be considered dangerous? Should Swiss-army knives be banned altogether? Well, for the Italian interior minister, if the small knife is carried for religious reasons, then the answer is yes.

Last May, after years of court cases and appeals, the interior minister announced that it was refusing to recognize Sikhism as a religion, on the grounds that the kirpan, the small ceremonial dagger that Sikhs must carry at all times, is dangerous.

The announcement was a great disappointment for the Italian Sikh community. “We are sad. Obviously we respect Italy and its laws, but after all these years of honest work in this country, we were hoping for a positive outcome,” says Harwant Singh, president of the Italian National Sikh Dharam Parchar Committee.

“I’m surprised that legal status is denied to a community which is a symbol of integration. They are the pillars of the production of the Parmesan cheese, just to give an example,” says Andrea Sarubbi, a member of parliament with the center-left Democratic Party, who is trying to find a solution to the dispute.

The first Sikhs arrived in Italy in the 1980s. They moved to northern and central Italy, where they worked hard without complaining, glad to create their own Italian families. Today, there are 60,000 Sikhs in Italy. “We wanted to live and stay here forever,” says Singh. “We have always followed the rules. We are a peaceful community, but we wish others respected our religion too.”

Despite being founded in the 15th century and being the fifth-largest religion in the world, today in Italy, the Sikh religion has no legal existence. It is just an association like any other.

Traditions and rules

Sikhs have to follow many rules. Men cannot cut their hair and must cover their heads with turbans. They also have to carry a comb, which is a sign of cleanness, traditional pants, a steel bracelet — and the much disputed kirpan dagger.

The turban has also been an issue in the past. The Italian Interior Ministry only authorized its use in official ID photos in 1995. Even if, once in a while, there are some problems at airport security checks, the issue of the turban is considered settled.

But this is not the case for the ceremonial dagger. After a first refusal from the interior ministry, Italy’s main administrative and judiciary body, the state council, confirmed that the kirpan was illegal in June 2010. In August 2011, Sikhs appealed, pointing out that the dagger was only carried under the belt, and could not be drawn. Moreover their religion does not require a specific length and so the knife can be shorter than 4 centimetres – so as not to be considered a weapon. Last May, the ministry rejected these objections.

“Now we have to think about our next move, but we’ll fight the decision,” says Singh. “We have 60 days to appeal the administrative authority or 120 days for an extraordinary appeal to the Italian president,” he adds.

Before his next appeal, the president of the Sikh community in Italy is due to meet up with representatives of the government, to see if there is room for a new decision. “It is important for us. Many people see us as Talibans. We have to make them understand that we are totally different. But we also want our religion to be respected in all its aspects,” Singh says. “A multicultural society has to face the dimension of the different faiths. They are difficult challenges but they cannot be avoided. They exist and need solutions,” says Sarubbi.

Photo – asleen_kaur

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