Italian provincial court to rule on existence of Jesus

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The Independent Online

An Italian provincial court in the small town of Viterbo has taken a break from the usual diet of land disputes, divorces and theft to ponder an altogether bigger issue: did Jesus exist?

It may sound more like an adolescent essay question, but lawyers were yesterday laying out their arguments for and against a fundamental pillar of the Christian faith: that Jesus Christ was real and born of Mary in Bethlehem.

The case has grown out of an argument between two old friends, Enrico Righi Rever, a Catholic prelate, and Luigi Cascioli, a staunch atheist. Mr Cascioli maintains that a parish bulletin written by the priest in 2002 breaks the law. He has asked Judge Gaetano Mautone to consider two criminal charges against Fr Righi; that the parish priest abused "popular belief" by fraudulently deceiving his flock, and that he financially gained from claiming that a man called John of Gamala was actually Jesus Christ.

The charges have little chance of success in a country renowned for its deeply held Roman Catholic beliefs, but if they are thrown out Mr Cascioli says he intends to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. "When somebody states a wrong fact, abusing the ignorance of the people, and gains from that, that is one of the gravest crimes," Mr Cascioli told reporters.

Fr Righi's lawyers say their client has every right to argue for Jesus's existence, and that they can cite a wealth of historical evidence, both Christian and non-Christian. "Don Righi is innocent because he said and wrote what he has a duty to say and write," said his lawyer, Severo Bruno.

A decision by Judge Mautone on whether there is a case to answer is expected Monday.

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