The Continuing Struggle for Religious Freedom by Italy's Sikh Community

What does adapting to Italian culture mean for the millions of foreigners living there? Does it mean giving up your religious identity?

Rome: In Rome’s south end, every Sunday, Sonny wears a colourful turban and enters the gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship. “My name is actually Gurjeet,” he says, “but Italians find difficult to pronounce it, so they nicknamed me Sonny”.

Gurjeet, like many Sikhs, is from Punjab. He moved to Italy in 2008, joining Europe’s second largest Sikh community. Unlike many others from India, Gurjeet decided to stay in Rome, near the gurdwara, where he often helped prepare the free food offered to visitors.

It is estimated that there are around 220,000 Sikh migrants in Italy. The community, however, has been largely invisible to native Italians. The majority of Sikhs are dairy workers, living far from the cities, and settled mainly in the farms of north and central Italy.

Kids playing on the womens side of the prayer room. Credit: Elena Hanim Onem

Now and then, their religion and culture hit the headlines of Italian media. The main reason for the controversy is the kirpan, a traditional knife that Sikhs are obliged to wear for religious reasons.

The latest controversial case came in mid-May. A Sikh man, caught leaving his home with a 20-cm kirpan, was arrested and had to pay a penalty of 2000 euros. He appealed arguing that the knife is a religious symbol, but the Italian Supreme Court rejected his reasons, “Migrants who live in the western society” – says the sentence – “are obliged to adapt to the value of the society they choose to settle”.

Indeed, the words of the Italian Supreme Court come as a surprise. “What is worrying is the statement that a religious community needs to conform to Italian culture. This undermines religious freedom and the expression of other religious symbols, such as the hijab for Muslim women, or the Kippah for Jewish,” says Katiuscia Carna’ who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was formerly an advisor on cultural mediation to the Italian government.

“Today there are around 5 million foreigners in Italy. What does it mean ‘adapt to Italian culture’? Would it mean losing their religious identity? This is something we need to ask and publicly debate about,” says Carna’.

The Sikh community is not ready to lose the battle for their religious recognition, and have appealed to the sense of justice and religious freedom of the Italian institutions. “We are sorry the Italian government misunderstood this Kirpan issue,” says Gurdeep Singh, head of the gurdwara located in the south of Rome. “The real problem is that our religion is not officially recognised yet. We are working to find a solution as soon as possible”.

In Italy, for a religious authority to be officially recognised it needs to submit details of its foundation to the department of civil rights and religious freedom at the interior ministry. The request for Sikhism to be officially recognised was made over a decade ago, but the use of the kirpan as a religious symbol is seen as an obstacle to the full approval.

Italian law does not permit carrying a knife, unless you can prove it is for a valid reason. Religion, unlike for work or sport, is not considered by Italian authorities.

“The difference between a knife and a kirpan needs to be understood,” says Harbinder Singh, chief editor of the Punjab Express, the newspaper of the Sikh community in Italy, “A knife that can be used on the farm, in the kitchen, or at work, and can be used for violent reasons. A kirpan cannot because it is a religious symbol”.

The entrance to the Gurdwara, located on a little road just beside a motorway. Credit: Elena Hanim Onem

The lack of recognition as an official religion, however, does not concern only Sikhism, but also Islam, with over a million Muslims living in the country. “In Italy integration has always corresponded to an ‘emergency response’, therefore it never provided long-term answers to the migrant demands. But immigration cannot be faced only as an emergency. In a globalised and postmodern era, we should have expected that the phenomenon would increase,” says Carna’.

In the last few years, Italian institutions have proved the willingness to commit to these new challenges. “Italy has to show openness to dialogues, although in its own Italian style,” Carna’ says.

Indeed this means making slow and small efficient bureaucratic advances. On the other hand, communities such as Sikhs have show flexibility in their demands. For instance, regarding the kirpan, the majority of Sikhs seem open to reduce the length of the blade from 16-17 cm to less than 4 cm, thus eliminating the concern regarding the public order.

“For us, it is extremely important to find a solution with the Italian government. We have all our families here, our sons and daughters are going to Italian schools and we want to respect Italian laws,” says Harbinder. Sikhs also proudly carry the heritage of being one of the first foreign communities to arrive in Europe and want to maintain their reputation in Italian society.

Over 10,000 Sikhs helped Italy during the First World War as part of the Indian army of the British Empire. Many cities in Italy have monuments celebrating this contribution. Even now, their role is fundamental to the Italian economy. Sikhs are in fact indispensable to the dairy industry and cheese manufacturers producing Italian parmesan and mozzarella.

Italy, however, remains a unique case of a secular state, where the Catholic religion still plays a predominant role. “Italy is not a Catholic but a secular country, therefore we need to recognise all religions in the public space. Freedom of religion needs to be guaranteed, with the only limit to negative influence toward the local society,” says Carna’.

Steady progress is being made, although slow and insufficient where migrants’ demands are concerned. Certainly, long-term resident communities, such as the Sikhs, making important contributions to Italian society will speed up the process.

For instance, the Sikhi Sewa Society, composed mainly of young, second generation Sikhs, print around 30,000 booklets in the Italian language every year, explaining the different aspects of Sikhism. The aim of these booklets is to increase integration and do away with misunderstandings.


Laura Cesaretti is an Italian freelance journalist specialised in Middle East and South Asia, she tweets at @laucesaretti. Elena Hanim Onem is a freelance photographer, specialised in photo documentary, she has been working with many Italian magazines