Pro-Palestinian Italian neofascist group targets Episcopal church in Florence

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Feb 29, 2024

A pro-Palestinian banner placed by the Italian neofascist group CasaPound hangs on the fence outside St. James Episcopal Church in Florence, Italy, in the early morning hours of Feb. 29. Photo: Richard Easterling

[Episcopal News Service] Followers of a neofascist group hung a pro-Palestinian banner on the fence outside St. James Episcopal Church  in Florence, Italy, about 11 p.m. on Feb. 28. Members of the group, CasaPound, later posted photos of the banner on the group’s website, the church’s rector, the Rev. Richard Easterling, told Episcopal News Service.

“We don’t need guns, but rather fire extinguishers. Stop the genocide in Palestine,” the sign read as translated from Italian to English, Easterling said. The church discovered the banner, which also included the group’s insignia, known as the “arrowed turtle,” about 7 a.m. and removed it Feb. 29, he said.

Easterling believes the protest was meant as a kind of memorial to Aaron Bushnell, a member of the United States Air Force and opponent of Israel’s war in Gaza who died on Feb. 26 after setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators and students have been protesting in Florence, Pisa and other Italian cities, sometimes invoking a violent response from police. The Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, 2023. Following Hamas’ attack inside Israel where 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage, the war largely has been waged in Gaza, killing an estimated 30,000 Palestinians and displacing 1.9 million people.

“Our suspicion is that the consulate had expanded its perimeter of security because of protests dealing with Gaza and Palestine, and we happen to be the American church down the street” just outside that perimeter, Easterling said. “And so, it seemed like a good plan B for them.”

Whatever the motivation for targeting the church, the vestry was alarmed by the neofascist symbol on the banner, and after Easterling called the police, they were alarmed, too, and sent in additional investigators.

He also notified the United States consulate, about four blocks away. “They jumped on it immediately and thought that this was very problematic. And so, we’ve now handed this over to the embassy police.”

A rise in neofascism has alarmed many in Italy, given the country’s history of fascist rule under Benito Mussolini in the decades before World War II.

Easterling said what upsets the church most is that the banner misrepresents what the church is and stands for. “It used the church’s property to produce a statement that the church didn’t have a say in, but also had the fascist symbolism, which sat on the front of our church property for hours, with people taking pictures.”

The Episcopal Church is a long-time advocate of a two-state solution in the Middle East. St. James is part of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, led by the Rt. Rev. Mark Edington.

“The Episcopal Church, like many churches, has been clear in its support for the existence of Israel and the right of the people of Israel to live in peace,” Edington wrote in an upcoming article for Trinité, the magazine of the American Cathedral in Paris. “On at least four occasions our General Convention has made clear the Church’s view that a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine, in which the Palestinian people are given the right of self-determination as envisaged by the Oslo Accords, offers the most promising pathway to reconciliation and restorative justice in the Middle East,” he wrote.

Members of St. James have differing opinions about the war in Gaza, Easterling said, but “I think that we all agree that nobody wants more violence, and nobody wants more of this. We got pushed into a limelight that we weren’t looking for.”

He thinks CasaPound will leave St. James alone now, since the church, the police and the consulate all know who was behind the banner. “If anything else happens, that’s who we’re going to be looking at.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.