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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Italians 'affronted' by EU official row
By Tamsin Smith
BBC News, Rome

Rocco Buttiglione - rejected as commissioner by an EU committee for his comments on homosexuality and women's roles - enjoys a respected position on the Italian political stage.

Rocco Buttiglione
Mr Buttiglione says his views will not affect his work

The storm in Brussels over his staunchly conservative comments looks unlikely to damage the standing of a man nicknamed "The Philosopher" due to his academic background.

Mr Buttiglione, who is close to the Vatican and a member of the Christian Democrat UDC party, said during a confirmation hearing in Brussels that he considered homosexuality "a sin".

He went on to say the aim of marriage was "to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male".

We must not be afraid of... confrontations sometimes
Rocco Buttiglione

The former European Affairs minister insisted his personal views would not affect his new position as Europe's justice and home affairs commissioner.

"I have said what I think, and I gave honest answers. I'm satisfied with my situation," he said to journalists in Rome.

"We need to have values and issues, and we must not be afraid of... confrontations sometimes. I think that Europe grows when we talk about the values we cherish."

Although a committee rejected his appointment, European Commission President Manuel Barroso has stood by him.

'Fundamentalist' Europe

The debate raging in Italy is not about his comments, but about the reaction they provoked and whether it is justified.

"This is seen by many as an unjust attack on Italy just because [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi is thought to have created a bad image in Europe," political analyst Renato Manheimer told BBC News Online.

In Italy, Mr Buttiglione is not short of friends. Catholic politicians and church leaders have rallied to defend Italy's European Affairs Minister.

Il Gazzettino newspaper front page
The row has dominated Italian media

"It's pure ostracism, an assault," Cardinal Ersilio Tonini told La Repubblica newspaper.

"This decision shows the real face of Europe, a face which we don't like. It's fundamentalist, which is absolutely not on," said Justice Minister Roberto Castelli.

The Brussels vote against Mr Buttiglione has been quickly daubed with Italian party political colours.

For the left it is an opportunity to claim that Mr Berlusconi and his cronies are damaging Italy's standing in Europe and even the credibility of the European Union.

The right-wing press talks of a "European ambush", a "siege", a "slap in the face"... expressions which conjure up an unprovoked attack on an unsuspecting Mr Buttiglione.

Whilst the left and right exchange punches, the comments made in Brussels have prompted little, if any, debate about gay and women's rights.

We should not forget that with these comments Rocco Buttiglione is simply expressing the widely held opinions of the centre-right Catholic electorate
Renato Manheimer
Political analyst

In fact, if Mr Buttiglione's remarks had been made in Italy, then it is likely they would have gone unnoticed.

"There would have been no political storm here in Italy. Politicians say these things frequently, and the gay lobby is not strong enough to be heard above the Catholic Church," points out analyst Mr Manheimer.

"We should not forget that with these comments Rocco Buttiglione is simply expressing the widely held opinions of the centre-right Catholic electorate."

But should the EU's Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner-in-waiting be playing to the tune of conservative Italian voters?

Whilst the politicians tie themselves in knots, Mr Buttiglione may be taking on a new role - as a martyr for freedom of expression.

Radio stations are lining up talk shows on the subject. One political show on state-run RAI radio is tackling "the conflict between secularism and Christianity".

Presenters are asking people to phone or email with suggestions and tips about "how to maintain and defend your beliefs in daily and professional life... and to avoid being chastised for them".

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