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Church Leader in Italy Threatened for Opposing Rights for Unmarried Couples

A high-ranking Italian prelate has received threats for speaking out against a proposed law that would give greater rights to unmarried and gay couples in Italy. Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome.

Genoa Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco is the president of the influential Italian bishops' Conference. He has come under fierce criticism for speaking out against a proposed law that will give greater rights to unmarried couples, including gays.

Last week, an envelope containing a bullet and a photograph of the archbishop with a swastika cut into it arrived at his office.

Italian politicians, including President Giorgio Napolitano, have expressed support for Archbishop Bagnasco. Mr. Napolitano assured the Vatican the archbishop would not be left alone to face the threats.

Pope Benedict XVI personally telephoned the prelate and urged him not to give in to intimidation. Many Catholics have also sent him messages of support, for which the archbishop has expressed his gratitude.

The archbishop said that certainly the messages are encouraging and are a confirmation that we must move forward for the good of all and for what we all desire.

Police in Italy have been concerned about the safety of the archbishop for some weeks. Bodyguards were assigned to protect him after graffiti threatening him was found scrawled on his cathedral and other buildings in the city.

The first graffiti appeared after the archbishop opposed legal recognition of same-sex marriage and referred to incest and pedophilia as examples of what can happen when the Catholic Church's moral certainties are ignored. Church officials were quick to note at the time that Bagnasco had not meant to draw any link between the rights of unmarried couples and incest or pedophilia.

The Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has expressed what he calls his profound and painful shock at the threats against the archbishop of Genoa.

Bertone says he hopes Archbishop Bagnasco and all the bishops of the church will continue to carry out their ministry in favor of society and humanity.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who had preceded Archbishop Bagnasco as president of the Italian bishops' conference, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that Italian Church leaders would not be silenced by threats. He said Church leaders "will speak even more clearly and forcefully."

To counter the government proposal for civil-union legislation, pro-family groups with the support and encouragement of the Italian Bishops Conference and the Vatican are sponsoring a "Family Day" on May 12. The Church is hoping that many thousands will demonstrate in favor of protection for the traditional family.