The Italian Almanac

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Ted Neeley as Jesus

A Socialist Jesus

Italian Catholic politicians are in a flap after the tiny Socialist Party presented its new electoral publicity campaign featuring Jesus in a starring role. Airing on all national television channels from Saturday, the two short adverts show images of Jesus from three films - Jesus Christ Superstar, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew and Claudio Malaponti's Seven Kilometres from Jerusalem.

Both ads feature a shot of Jesus raising his arms to heaven while a voiceover reminds viewers that the son of God ''was the first socialist in history''. In one of the adverts, Jesus is seen drawing a circle on the ground that turns into the Socialists' red electoral symbol as a voiceover urges voters to ''close the circle'' by choosing the party.

Although only a handful of journalists has actually seen the ads, Catholic politicians are fussing over the ''hypocrisy'' of the secular Socialist Party, which is traditionally outspoken in its defence of constitutional separation between Church and state. The party has been opposed to public funding for private Catholic schools and has campaigned for more liberal laws on assisted fertility and the rights of gay couples. But leader Enrico Boselli said the two issues should not be confused.

''It's one thing to criticise the ecclesiastic hierarchy for certain choices that we do not agree with and it's another to talk about Christ,'' said Boselli, pointing outthat both Socialism and Christianity ''fight in defence of the weak''. ''There's nothing blasphemous in the message - Jesus is for everyone,'' added Socialist Party senator Gavino Angius. ''He was without doubt the first rebel in history who fought for freedom and justice for mankind''.

Formerly part of the centre-left coalition, the Socialist Party is running on its own in April's general elections after refusing to join the Democratic Party in order to maintain its own political and historical identity.