VERONA, Italy (AP) — When hundreds of hardcore Verona soccer fans chanted "Adolf Hitler is my friend" and sang of their team's embrace of the swastika, Italian Jewish communities complained, and waited.
Local officials initially dismissed the incident — which was filmed and circulated on social media by the so-called "ultras" themselves — as a "prank." Condemnation only came several months later, after another video from the same summer party, this time profaning Christian objects, also went viral.
"These episodes should absolutely not be dismissed," said Bruno Carmi, the head of Verona's tiny Jewish community of about 100, speaking at the Verona synagogue, which is flanked by two armed police patrols. "In my opinion, whoever draws a simple swastika on the wall knows what it means."
Racist and anti-Semitic expressions in Italy have been growing more bold, widespread and violent. Anti-migrant rhetoric is playing an unprecedented role in shaping the campaign for the country's March 4 national election, which many say is worsening tensions and even encouraging violence.
Hate crimes motivated by racial or religious bias in Italy rose more than 10-fold, from 71 incidents in 2012 to 803 in 2016, according to police statistics. The five-year period corresponded with an explosion in migrant arrivals.
The latest violence came Feb. 3 when a right-wing extremist shot and wounded six African immigrants in the small central Italian city of Macerata. Police say the suspect claims to have been acting out of revenge after a Nigerian immigrant was arrested on suspicion of killing and dismembering an 18-year-old teen whose remains were found three days earlier. The shooting drew widespread, but not universal, condemnation.
The attack also had a political taint. The alleged gunman, Luca Traini, was a failed candidate for the right-wing, anti-migrant Northern League last year and had previously flirted with more extreme neo-fascist movements. Police seized Nazi and white supremacist propaganda from his bedroom.
The night before the shooting, the leader of the rebranded League, Matteo Salvini, had cited the teen's murder in a campaign appearance in Verona, pledging to send home 150,000 migrants if elected. He only dug in further after the attack.
Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is competing with Salvini for leadership of the center-right coalition, significantly upped the political ante after the shooting. He claimed that 600,000 migrants were in Italy illegally, calling them "a social bomb ready to explode because they are ready to commit crimes," and threatened to deport many.
"The facts of Macerata in some ways show that in recent years there has been a process of cultural, social and political legitimization of racism that is creating enormous damage, most of all at the expense of people's lives," said Grazia Naletto, president of Lunaria, a Rome-based non-governmental agency that compiles a database of racist incidents in Italy.
Lunaria counts 84 cases of racist violence against individuals in the past three years, including 11 racially motivated murders, a statistic that Naletto called unprecedented in Italy.
A report on hate for the Italian parliament last summer reported that 40 percent of Italians believe other religions pose a threat, especially the Muslim faith. It also said anti-Semitism is shared by one in five Italians. The IPSOS MORI polling company found that Italy is the least informed country in the world regarding immigration, with most people overestimating by more than three times the number of immigrants living in Italy.
Findings by the swg research institute based in Trieste published in January said the demographic most vulnerable to neo-Nazi ideals are those aged 25-34, and that among Italians overall, 55 percent of those in the lowest income range either indulge in or oppose combating neo-Nazi and neo-fascist ideals.
Experts cite many reasons for the spread of extremism and racist expressions that until recently were mostly relegated to the margins of society. They include a superficial understanding of history, as well as an economy weakened by a long crisis that sidelined many ordinary workers and barred many young people from entering the work force.
More recently, there is the added pressure of migrants arriving from across the Mediterranean, with arrivals nearing 120,000 last year and topping 180,000 the year before.
The head of the immigration office at the Verona diocese concedes that many Italians have not accepted that theirs has become a multicultural society, despite the fact that about 9 percent of the nation's residents are foreigners. The diocese where he works hosts 11 foreign Christian communities, but resistance to integration is entrenched, he said.
"Romanian youths have less trouble integrating than ones from Ghana or Sri Lanka," the Rev. Giuseppe Mirandola said. "That is to say, we still have difficulty with the color of the skin."
He said even Pope Francis' calls to welcome migrants in this predominantly Roman Catholic nation have fallen on some deaf ears.
"The theme of immigrants and the fact that Pope Francis insists on their welcome touches very sensitive nerve in some people who refuse this message," Mirandola said. "While they appreciate the simple style of the pope, on this issue they find themselves ill at ease."
The audience of some 500 for Salvini's Verona appearance included farmers, families with children, university students, artists and political activists. Many spoke out against migrants, even before the candidate took the stage.
Luisa Albertini, whose family owns eight orchards in the province, echoed Salvini's rhetoric of a migrant invasion "because not all are escaping from war. There are people who are taking advantage because they know that they can find everything they want here."
Alessandro Minozzi, a city councilman from the town of Bolvone, said migrants being housed in the town pose a threat to order. "A person can't go around peacefully if there are these 100 people who don't know what to do during the day," he said.
In the countryside around Verona, it is still possible to read inscriptions of Italy's Fascist leader Benito Mussolini's most infamous mottos on the sides of buildings, with some seemingly recently re-painted. Photographs of Mussolini can be readily found at flea markets and newly minted calendars bearing his image sell in newsstands.
And while such items may fall short of an apology for fascism — a crime in Italy — their public display without context can fuel a misunderstanding of history, said Carmi, the Verona Jewish leader.
"It was not a golden period for everyone in Italy," said Carmi, whose great aunt and uncle were among the 8,000 Italian Jews deported to Nazi death camps, where most perished. "For some it was. Certainly not for us."