Near Rome, the existence of Christ to be 'proved' in court

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Luigi Cascioli, a retired agronomist in his 70s, filed his lawsuit in September 2002 against Don Enrico Righi, parish priest of the church of San Bonaventura, near Viterbo, accusing the cleric of "tricking" the faithful when he wrote in a parish newspaper that archaeologists and biographers had proven that Jesus was a historical figure, born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Fr Righi, also in his 70s, attended the same seminary school as Mr Cascioli at Bagnoregio.

Mr Cascioli has claimed in a book that the Church "constructed" Christ on the personality of John of Gamala, a 1st-century Jew who fought against the Roman army. He claims that Fr Righi, and by extension the whole Church, have broken Italian law on abuso di credulita popolare (abuse of popular belief) and sostituzione di persona or impersonation. He says the clergy's main motive is financial, owing to the benefits they receive from the Italian fiscal system under which citizens may opt to devolve part of their income tax payments to the church. "This fraud guarantees them all the financial advantages from donations from the faithful," he told La Stampa.

The public prosecutor's office in Viterbo initially threw out the case as "totally unfounded" but Mr Cascioli appealed to the judges' Superior Council, which ordered a higher court in Perugia to inform Fr Righi that he was under investigation. After another hearing ordered the case to be filed as a waste of time, he took the case to Rome, arguing that the judge in Viterbo was biased against him. But the appeal court found against him and ordered him to pay €1,500 (£1,100) in fines.

Mr Cascioli then offered to withdraw the charges, on condition that the clergyman prove the existence of Jesus. Fr Righi is considering whether to appear at a fresh hearing on 27 January but maintains justice is on his side: "Cascioli says Jesus didn't exist and I said he did. The judge will decide."