On a street near St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, a Nazi swastika and the words "No Gay Zone" have been painted on the asphalt. Among the graffiti, another under a nearby window reads, "gay = pedophile."
The rhetoric of far-right groups has added to tensions in the Italian capital, as thousands of gay-rights supporters converge on the city for World Pride 2000, a weeklong international festival celebrating gay life that has angered the Roman Catholic Church and caused a political furor. The controversy pits the Vatican's desire for an "untainted" celebration of Catholic values against Rome's backing of free expression by all citizens. It has also sparked an open discussion of homosexual issues, long a taboo subject in Italy.
"We're looking to achieve equality and respect," Deborah Oakley-Melvin, a festival organizer, told Reuters as the festival began on July 1.
The opening event in the gardens of the Philharmonic Academy was met with a pair of protests. The far-right Forza Nuova (New Force) sponsored a march through central Rome that the group said was "in defense of traditional family values." About 700 members gave the Nazi salute and waved banners saying "stop gay pride."
Religious groups and the far-right National Alliance party held an evening torchlight parade, which they said was to "repair the shame" gays are bringing to the center of Roman Catholicism.
Planned since December 1996, World Pride 2000 coincides with the Holy Year of spiritual renewal proclaimed by Pope John Paul II to mark the anniversary of Jesus' birth. The Vatican -which considers homosexual acts a sin - has said gay-rights supporters have the constitutional right to demonstrate, but the festival should not be taking place during the church's year-long celebration.
Cardinal Ersilio Tonini told state television on Saturday, "You cannot prevent us from considering you our brothers and sons - you will always find an open door here." He added, "a dialogue is something else, though. By choosing the Holy Year, the Jubilee ... one chooses provocation."
The festival, which runs through July 9, coincides with several Holy Year events, including a special gathering for the pope's Polish compatriots on July 2, expected to draw 200,000 people.
But it's the climax of the World Pride festivities - a march organizers want to hold around the Colosseum on July 8 -that has proved a political hot potato.
The Rome city council first backed the march, then, expressing deep concern about offending the Vatican, withdrew its official patronage.
In January, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, referring to the World Pride demonstration, said, "This is only a squalid provocation against the Holy See and Catholic morality."
The desire to avoid confrontation between an aging and widely respected pope and thousands of potential protesters led national and local politicians in Rome to work publicly and behind the scenes to see if there was a way to avoid the demonstration.
Prime Minister Giuliano Amato has called the march "inopportune," but conceded there is nothing the government can do to stop it. "Unfortunately," the premier said, "there is a Constitution that imposes upon us limits and confers rights."
Festival organizers, meanwhile, say all the attention has generated a groundswell of support and sympathy for their cause. They recently increased their estimate of the number of people from around the world expected to attend World Pride events in Rome from 200,000 to 300,000.
Despite their lack of an official permit, organizers say they are determined to march peacefully by the Colosseum - the ancient Roman amphitheater is an international symbol for human rights that is lit up each time a death sentence is commuted anywhere in the world.
"We will get to the Colosseum, and we will get there cheerfully and calmly," says Massimo Quinzi, who is with the Mario Mieli gay-support center in Rome.
"What is a city for - Rome especially - if it's not to bring together diversity?" adds a gay American intellectual who has lived here for decades.
There is no vocal intolerance of gays in Italy's political mainstream. Even the leader of the rightist National Alliance Party, Gianfranco Fini, said years ago that he didn't care what homosexuals did in private, adding the qualifying statement, "as long as they don't try anything with me." The latest controversy has led some prominent Italians, including a Cabinet minister and fashion designer Egon Furstenberg, to openly declare themselves bisexual.
But Italy's underground includes extremists, like the violent "ultras" at soccer matches, who are making their voices heard with posters and spray paint. Along the walls near the intellectual's gymnasium, which is popular with the local homosexual community, are posters that read, "Italy needs more children, not more gays."
Italy for years has had one of the lowest birth rates in the world and racist groups often seek to exploit fears that homosexuals will undermine families and that immigrants will reproduce faster than native Italians.
Among other things, the organizers of World Pride week hope to counteract such prejudice. They have the support of international singing stars, such as former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, Gloria Gaynor, and Grace Jones, who will participate in a giant open-air concert on Saturday.
The neofascists, meanwhile, have promised a confrontation at the Colosseum if marchers defy the city. "Gays at the Colosseum?" read one Forza Nuova banner last weekend. "With lions inside!"
*Material from wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society