- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

ROME — The American debate over intelligent design versus evolution is merely stuff for Sunday school scholars. An Italian court is considering whether the Roman Catholic Church is breaking the law by teaching that Jesus Christ walked the earth 2,000 years ago.

The case pits against each other two men in their 70s, who are from the same central Italian town and went to the same seminary school in their teenage years.

The defendant, Enrico Righi, went on to become a priest writing for the parish newspaper. The plaintiff, Luigi Cascioli, became a vocal atheist who, after years of legal wrangling, is slated to get his day in court later this month.”I started this lawsuit because I wanted to deal the final blow against the church, the bearer of obscurantism and regression,” Mr. Cascioli said.

Mr. Cascioli says Father Righi, and by extension the Roman church, broke two Italian laws. The first is “Abuso di Credulita Popolare” (“Abuse of Popular Belief”), meant to protect citizens against being swindled or conned. The second crime, he says, is “Sostituzione di Persona,” or impersonation.

“The church constructed Christ upon the personality of John of Gamala,” Mr. Cascioli said, referring to the first-century Jew who fought the Roman army.

A court in Viterbo will hear from Father Righi, who has yet to be indicted, at a Jan. 27 preliminary hearing meant to determine whether the case has enough merit to go forward.

“In my book, ‘The Fable of Christ,’ I present ‘proof’ Jesus did not exist as a historic figure. [Father Righi] must now refute this by showing proof of Christ’s existence,” Mr. Cascioli said.

In an interview, Father Righi, 76, sounded frustrated by the case and baffled as to why Mr. Cascioli — who, like him, came from the town of Bagnoregio — singled him out in the crusade against the church.

“We’re both from Bagnoregio, both of us. We were in seminary together. Then he took a different path, and we didn’t see each other anymore. Since I’m a priest and I write in the parish newspaper, he is now suing me because I ‘trick’ the people.”

Father Righi says there is plenty of evidence to support the existence of Christ, including historical texts. Besides, he says, justice is on his side. The judge presiding over the hearing has tried, repeatedly, to dismiss the case — prompting appeals from Mr. Cascioli.

“Cascioli says He didn’t exist. And I said that He did,” Father Righi said. “The judge will have to decide if Christ exists or not.”

Mr. Cascioli concedes that the odds are against him, especially in Roman Catholic Italy. “It would take a miracle to win,” he said.

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