Calls mounted Monday for the Senate vice president to resign after he compared Italy's first black Cabinet minister to an orangutan, with the Italian premier lamenting that the country had been "shamed" by such insults and demanding they stop immediately.
"When I see images of Kyenge I cannot help think, even if I don't say that she is one, of a resemblance to an orangutan," Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted Roberto Calderoli as saying.
Calderoli, a leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, has insisted he was only joking when he made the comment at a League rally last weekend. He told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Monday that he compares all his colleagues to animals and that what he says at a political rally shouldn't have any bearing on his work as the Senate No. 2.
Cecile Kyenge, a Congolese-born eye doctor, has been insulted with racist slurs from the Northern League ever since she was named integration minister in April. One Northern League politician has called her a Congolese "monkey," while another has said she deserved to be raped.
Kyenge responded to Calderoli's latest insult by saying it's not for her to demand his resignation but for Italians to reflect on the merits of public office-holders.
"We have to use messages that don't instigate violence," the ANSA news agency quoted Kyenge as telling a rally in Pescara. "Surely it's not my job to respond to violence with violence."
"I think we've had enough shame so far," Letta said, noting how the story has been playing internationally.
Letta's Democratic Party has called for Calderoli's resignation, as have a few ministers. The president of the Senate, anti-Mafia prosecutor Pietro Grasso, has called Calderoli's comments "racist verbal aggression."
Letta was particularly irked that another League official, Matteo Salvini, had chastised Italy's respected president for coming to Kyenge's defense after Calderoli's insult.
On his Facebook page, Salvini essentially told President Giorgio Napolitano to keep quiet. By Monday afternoon, the comment had received more than 850 "likes."
"What Italy has been going through since yesterday on such issues is a page of shame which is absolutely unbearable," Letta said at a news conference with the visiting Maltese prime minister. He issued what he called a "sincere appeal" to Maroni to put a stop to it.
"Please close this episode as soon as possible," he said.
The Northern League, which helped author Italy's strict immigration law, is vehemently opposed to Kyenge's call for children born in Italy to immigrants to be able to gain Italian citizenship. Currently, such children must wait until they are 18 to apply, and often bureaucratic snafus interfere.