VITERBO, Italy – An Italian judge heard arguments Friday on whether a small-town parish priest should stand trial for asserting that Jesus Christ existed.
The priest's atheist accuser, Luigi Cascioli, says the Roman Catholic Church has been deceiving people for 2,000 years with a fable that Christ existed, and that the Rev. Enrico Righi violated two Italian laws by reasserting the claim.
Lawyers for Righi and Cascioli, old schoolmates, made their arguments in a brief, closed-door hearing before Judge Gaetano Mautone in Viterbo, north of Rome.
The judge was expected to announce his decision — either dismiss the case or order Righi to stand trial — on Monday, said the prelate's lawyer, Severo Bruno.
They said they expected the judge to decide quickly.
Cascioli filed a criminal complaint 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 constituted two crimes under Italian law: so-called "abuse of popular belief," in which someone fraudulently deceives people; and "impersonation," in which someone gains by attributing a false name to a person.
"The point 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 hope of the case succeeding in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy, but that he is merely going through the 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," Bruno told reporters.
He said he 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 countered that there have long 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."
Lawyers say that if Righi is convicted, he could face up to a year in prison, although under Italian law a sentence of up to two years is automatically suspended.
Outside Righi's parish in nearby Bagnoregio, newspaper salesman Ernesto Gambacorta said the case against the town priest was "absurd."
"Don Righi is a good priest who has been parish priest here all his life, and he has put up with this with tranquility," Gambacorta said. "In Bagnoregio, everybody is on his side."