An Italian judge heard arguments from lawyers on Friday on whether a small-town parish priest should stand trial for asserting that Jesus Christ existed. The priest's accuser, an atheist, says the Roman Catholic Church has been deceiving people for 2,000 years with a fable that Christ existed and he accused the priest of violating two laws by furthering the assertion. Lawyers for the prelate, the Rev. Enrico Righi, and his accuser, Luigi Cascioli, made their arguments before Judge Gaetano Mautone in a brief, closed-door hearing in Viterbo, north of Rome. They said they expected Mautone to decide quickly whether to dismiss the case or order Righi to stand trial.
Cascioli filed a criminal complaint against Righi, his old schoolmate, in 2002 after Righi wrote in a parish bulletin that Jesus did indeed exist, and that he was born of a couple named Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth.
Cascioli claims that Righi's assertion violated two laws: so-called "abuse of popular belief" in which someone fraudulently deceives people; and "impersonation" in which someone gains by attributing a false name to someone. "The point (of today's hearing) is not to establish whether Jesus existed or not, but if there is a question of possible fraud," Cascioli's attorney, Mauro Fonzo, told reporters before the hearing.
Cascioli says the church has been gaining financially by "impersonating" as Christ someone by the name of John of Gamala, the son of Judas from Gamala.
He has said he has little expectation that the case will succeed in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy, but that he is merely going through necessary legal steps to reach the European Court of Human Rights, where he intends to accuse the church of what he calls "religious racism."
Righi, 76, has stressed substantial historical evidence both Christian and non-Christian of Jesus' existence.
"Don Righi is innocent because he said and wrote what he has the duty to say and write," Righi's attorney, Severo Bruno, told reporters.
He said he had told Mautone during the hearing that Righi was not asserting a historical fact when he wrote of Jesus' existence, but rather "an expression of theological principles."
"When Don Righi spoke about Christ's humanity ... he was affirming that he needs to be considered as a man. What his name is, where he comes from or who his parents are is secondary," he said.
Fonza said he had argued that since the beginning of time there had been questions of Christ's existence and that the matter warranted discussion in the court.
"When somebody states a wrong fact, abusing the ignorance of people, and gains from that, that is one of the gravest crimes," Cascioli told reporters.
Righi's brother, Luigi Righi, attended the hearing and said his brother was "serene but bitter", reports the AP.