Move to fingerprint Gypsies reminds many of Italy's darker days

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In mid-April Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister of Italy in a campaign focused on increasing security and fighting crime, particularly by cracking down on illegal immigration.

In addition to strengthening local government's power to expel undocumented foreigners, the Berlusconi government has focused its crime-fighting efforts on the estimated 140,000 Roma and Sinti -- Gypsies -- who live in the country.

At least half the Gypsies are Italian citizens.

Within a month of his election, Berlusconi's government was promising to dismantle unauthorized Roma camps, leading to expressions of concern by Vatican officials and a variety of religious leaders in Italy.

The concern became outrage in late June when Interior Minister Roberto Maroni announced plans to fingerprint every Gypsy in Italy, including children.

Maroni said the plan would enable the government to identify each person and check whether he or she was in Italy legally. Children were included in the plan, he said, because it was the only way to keep track of whether their parents were sending them to school or were forcing them out on the streets to beg or steal.

Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, described his reaction as one of "surprise, unease and sadness."

While he said he supported efforts to protect children from exploitation and to send them to school, he said he was convinced there were other ways to accomplish that.

"In Catholic morality," he said, "not only must the aim be good, but the means for reaching it must be."

The fingerprinting plan is blatantly discriminatory, he said.

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