ROME (AP) — Italy's first black Cabinet minister is facing Internet death threats before a visit to a region known for its anti-immigrant political base.
But Cecile Kyenge says she's not afraid and challenged Italians to respond to such intimidation themselves to prove that Italy isn't racist.
Kyenge, a Congolese-born doctor who has lived in Italy since 1983, has been the target of racist diatribes ever since she was named integration minister in April. She has been called "Congolese monkey," and a member of a "bonga bonga government."
Last week, a local politician from the xenophobic Northern League party was expelled from the party after she suggested on Facebook: "Why doesn't someone rape her (Kyenge), so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?" The official, Dolores Valandro, was implying that immigrants were responsible for violent crime in Italy.
Kyenge on Wednesday acknowledged "racist episodes," but declined to brand the country as a whole racist. She has offered a muted response to the attacks against her, saying it's more for Italy as a nation to respond.
"These actions are directed against all of us, not just me," Kyenge told reporters. "Surely it hasn't left me indifferent. But I think the response that the country gives is important."
Unlike France, Germany or Britain, where second and third generations of immigrants have settled, albeit uneasily, Italy is a relative newcomer to the phenomenon, with the first waves of immigrants coming to Italy's shores only in the 1980s. The country's race problem was then largely seen at soccer stadiums, where even today black stars like Mario Balotelli are routinely subjected to racists taunts.
But Kyenge's emergence onto the political stage has brought the issue to the fore, spurred on in part by her call for Italy to change its citizenship law to allow children born in Italy of legal immigrants to obtain citizenship more easily.
Currently, such children can only apply once they turn 18, and can be denied citizenship for a host of bureaucratic mistakes or omissions. Kyenge says changing the law is a key part of changing Italians' very concept of citizenship, to take into account the country's changing demographics.
Foreigners made up about 2 percent of Italy's population in 1990; currently the figure stands at 7.5 percent.
"It's a new citizenship that comes about by the meeting of different cultures," she said.
Her call, however, has been met with stiff resistance by the anti-immigrant Northern League, which isn't taking part in a parliamentary committee drafting the new citizenship law. Kyenge's spokesman, Cosimo Torlo, said it's unclear at what age citizenship could be obtained under the proposed legislation — at age 3, 5 or 10 — but that "Whatever it is, it will be better than the current law."
The threats against Kyenge are real. She arrived at the Foreign Press Association with a phalanx of bodyguards, two of whom flanked the dais where Kyenge spoke, talking into their shirt cuffs and sending signals to two other colleagues at the back of the room.
Asked about the unusually high security detail, Kyenge noted that all ministers have bodyguards. "But it's clear that for me, because of the threats I have received, there's a greater attention on protection."
This weekend, Kyenge will give the opening address to a multicultural festival in the northern region of Veneto, the political home base of the Northern League. Far-right groups are planning a protest. Isabella Zuliani, vice mayor of the town hosting the event, told newspaper Il Gazzettino that police have already been informed about a new round of Internet death threats directed at Kyenge, including one that exhorted simply: "Kill her."
"Racist episodes exist, but you can't say that a country is racist because there are certain episodes in the territory," Kyenge said.
That said, Kyenge appeared more ready to acknowledge such "racist episodes" than in her first meeting with the media, soon after she was nominated. Then, she said Italy's problem wasn't so much racism as ignorance of "the other."
After two months of taunts directed against her, Kyenge said, "Maybe what is missing in Italy is a culture of immigration: We have to try to know, understand the 'other,' and that diversity is a richness.
"As soon as we understand that, we can evaluate whether Italy is racist," she added.
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