Bishops order mobile phone masts down

Italy has an estimated 100,000 churches and the largest mobile phone market in Europe, so church towers seemed a heaven-sent infrastructure opportunity for the telecommunications industry as it scrambles to extend its radiomobile signal to the farthest corners of the land. But a circular signed by Bishop Ennio Antonelli, secretary general of the Italian Bishops' Conference, the organisation that governs the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, will restore the cross to uncluttered pre-eminence on religious buildings throughout the country.

Use of church buildings for purposes unconnected with worship would violate church law and could jeopardise the fiscal exemptions and other privileges currently granted to churches by the Italian state, Bishop Antonelli's directive said. The document has been circulated to parish priests throughout the country and excerpts from it were published Friday in a Catholic magazine, Vita Pastorale (Pastoral Life).

"Any permanent use, even partial, of a religious building for reasons unrelated to its principal purpose would not only violate canon law but could also jeopardise its special civic status," Bishop Antonelli warned. The bishop also pointed out that it would be imprudent to compromise the univocality and visibility of Christian symbols in an increasingly multicultural society.

The installation of mobile phone transmitters on church towers is in its early stages and the ban is unlikely to have major consequences for Italy's six mobile phone operators, a source close to the bishops' organisation said. Telecom Italia Mobile (TIM) SpA, the largest mobile phone operator, has more than 6000 GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) repeater stations around the country and only a few dozen on church bell towers, a company spokeswoman said. "TIM was the first company to create its network, so we were able to choose the best sites," the spokeswoman said in a telephone interview. "It's possible that the later arrivals have opted to use church towers more. For TIM the impact of this decision will be minimal."

Access rights for maintenance men and the as-yet-unquantified dangers of electromagnetic pollution were also cited as reasons for the ban. Directors of Vatican Radio, coincidentally, face trial later this month for allegedly exceeding Italian legal limits on electromagnetic emissions at a transmission centre near Rome. The Vatican officials have argued that there is no scientific evidence that the emission levels are dangerous and that their radio antenna anyway enjoys extra-territorial status under the terms of the 1929 Lateran Pact.

Mobile phone masts are deemed to be "alien to the sanctity" of churches and those that have already been installed must be dismantled, the bishops' circular said. From now on, the towers will return to their traditional form of acoustic communications: the pealing of bells.

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