The Catholic Church in Italy is angry over the government’s refusal to allow the faithful to attend religious services, as the country edges towards a cautious relaxation of coronavirus lockdown rules.
Under a new decree announced on Sunday night by the prime minister, businesses, factories and building sites will be allowed to restart on May 4 and people will be allowed out of their homes to exercise.
Public parks will be reopened and children will be allowed out for fresh air and exercise, Giuseppe Conte said.
But the government said churches and cathedrals would remain closed to congregations because there remained a high risk of the virus being spread.
Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and make up a high proportion of Italy’s dwindling churchgoers.
"I understand that freedom of worship is a fundamental people's right," the prime minister said. "I understand your suffering. But we must continue discussing this further with the scientific committee."
The Italian Bishops’ Conference accused the government of “arbitrarily” compromising religious freedom.
The decree also exposed divisions within the government, with some ministers calling for congregations to be allowed to return to churches.
"So, we can safely visit a museum but we can't celebrate a religious service? This decision is incomprehensible. It must be changed," tweeted Elena Bonetti, the equal opportunities minister.
Catholic leaders said the Church was working hard to alleviate the suffering of the poor and the marginalised during the coronavirus emergency.
“It should be clear to all that the commitment to serving the poor, [which is] so significant in this emergency, stems from a faith that must be nourished at its source, especially the sacramental life”, the bishops’ conference said.
Bishops said that the government’s “phase 2” lockdown “arbitrarily excludes the possibility of celebrating Mass with the people”.
Priests in Italy have been conducting services but to empty churches. They live-stream the services on social media to their congregations, who have been stuck at home under the country’s strict lockdown.
Under the new decree, funerals are now allowed but the number of mourners must be limited to 15.
Italy’s draconian lockdown was imposed on March 9, with people told they can only leave their homes to shop for essential food supplies, collect medicines from chemists or travel to and from work.
Those stringent measures are to be relaxed from May 4, but gradually.
Shops will be allowed to reopen on May 18, as will galleries, museums and libraries.
But hairdressers, restaurants and bars will not be allowed to reopen until June 1 and no dates has been set yet for the reopening of gyms, nightclubs and cinemas.
Schools and universities are to remain closed for the rest of the academic year and are expected to restart in September.
People will have to wear masks in shops, offices and other confined spaces – wherever social distancing of at least one metre cannot be guaranteed. Organised sport remains banned.
Italians are not allowed to move between the country’s 20 regions unless they have good reason to do so.
More than 26,000 people have died from the virus in Italy – the highest death toll after the US – and 200,000 have been infected.