VATICAN CITY -- Pinched by the global recession and tough-love budget demands of the European Union, the Italian government is looking for extra revenue, and has its eyes set on commercial properties owned by the Roman Catholic Church.
On Feb. 15, the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti announced it wants to revise rules on the tax-exempt status of church-owned commercial property. Although the exemption also applies to other not-for-profit entities, such as trade unions, political parties and religious groups, the Catholic church is its largest beneficiary.
"Such a move would have been unimaginable six months ago," said Francesco Perfetti, a history professor at LUISS University in Rome. "After all, no matter whether you are a believer or not, the church is an integral part of Italy's culture."
The exemption, introduced in 1992, has sparked a heated debate, especially after the Euro crisis and Italy's staggering debt forced the government to introduce sweeping austerity measures, including a sharp rise in the pension age.
Critics say the current rules give church-owned businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, an unfair advantage over their competitors.