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Italian senator says orangutan jibe was not racist

Italian Senator Roberto Calderoli speaks at a press conference in Rome, on August 13, 2011
Italian Senator Roberto Calderoli speaks at a press conference in Rome, on August 13, 2011. An Italian senator who compared the country's first black minister to an orangutan said he did a "silly thing" and offered to send her a bunch of roses.

An Italian anti-immigrant party raised hackles again on Tuesday when a senator who compared a black minister to an orangutan said his remarks were not intended to be racist and sent her flowers.

Roberto Calderoli, deputy speaker of the Senate and a top member of the Northern League party, said he was sorry but ruled out resigning over his jibe, and party leader Roberto Maroni said the issue was "closed".

Calderoli also said he would continue to oppose the government for "encouraging illegal immigration" -- days after Pope Francis called for greater tolerance for asylum-seekers in predominantly Catholic Italy.

Calderoli said he had phoned the target of the jibe, Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge -- who is an Italian citizen of Congolese origin -- and told her: "There were no racist insults in what I said."

A group of local officials from the centre-left Democratic Party meanwhile said they were taking Calderoli to court for "defamation with racial hatred".

But Kyenge played down the row on Tuesday, telling reporters she did not want it to "get personal".

Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge reacts during a press conference on July 16, 2013 in Rome
Italy's Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge reacts during a press conference on July 16, 2013 in Rome.

"The time has come in Italy for all of us to understand... the importance of words," she said.

The senator, a former government minister, once said that Italy "risks becoming a nation of poofs".

In other outbursts, he has also said Italy should not have a "tanned president" like the United States and that immigrants should "go back to the desert and talk to the camels or to the jungle with the monkeys".

The Northern League, a former coalition ally of ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, won four percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in February.

The dispute comes after Pope Francis last week flew on his first trip outside Rome to the island of Lampedusa to "cry for the dead" asylum-seekers who perish trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.

Pope Francis leads a mass during his visit to the island of Lampedusa on July 8, 2013
Pope Francis, holding a cross made from the wood of rickety fishing boats, leads a mass during his visit to the island of Lampedusa, a key destination for tens of thousands of would-be immigrants from Africa, on July 8, 2013.

The pope urged people to heed "the cries of others" on a trip that humanitarian organisations and Italian parliament speaker Laura Boldrini, a former United Nations refugee worker, hailed as "historic".

But some politicians, who are little inclined to defend secularism in Italy on issues such as crucifixes in schools, abortion or gay marriage, called for greater "autonomy" from the Church on the issue of migration.

Fabrizio Cicchitto, a deputy from Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said there was a difference between "religious preaching" and "a state handling a difficult, complex and insidious phenomenon".

Lawmakers from the Northern League have gone further, calling on the pontiff to provide "money and land to house immigrants" who land in Europe.

The debate has taken a sinister twist with Calderoli's comments, which have sparked outrage in the country although no apparent censure for the senator.

Prime Minister Enrico Letta spoke of a "shameful chapter" and President Giorgio Napolitano said the comments were an example of "barbarism".

Calderoli said the jibe was intended as a "joke" and added insult to injury by saying he "liked animals a lot".

The Northern League has also capitalised on the publicity it is receiving by announcing it will hold a demonstration against illegal immigration in Turin.

Kyenge says she has received daily threats.

She said remarks like the ones made by Calderoli showed "a lack of knowledge of others and of the phenomenon of migration, as well as an absence of culture of immigration".

Historically a land of emigration, Italy's foreign-born population has increased exponentially over the last two decades ever since a wave of immigration from Albania in 1992.

Since the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya there has also been an increased influx of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa transiting through these countries.

In 10 years, between 2002 and 2012, the share of immigrants in the population has tripled to reach 7.9 percent, according to figures from the labour ministry.

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