Turmoil in small Italian town after judge silences church bells

All eight Slovenian MEPs have weighed in to a ding-dong in a small town in northern Italy, calling on the European Commission to act to “protect traditions” after an Italian judge silenced a church’s bells.

For some in Dolina, a town with a minority Slovene community close to Italy’s border with Slovenia, the bells of Sant’Ulderico church were essential to the rhythm of their day, with the tolls not only informing them of the start of mass, a feast day or when someone died, but also serving as a clock.

For others, the “loud and excessive” ringing was a bane, leading to a petition that in turn led a judge in nearby Trieste to remove the bells in an unprecedented ruling.

“Fines have been given to Italian parishes if bells are too noisy, but they have never been confiscated before,” said the parish priest, Klemen Zalar. “This reaction was a bit too heavy.”

The row has embittered the population of 4,800, drawing accusations of personal vendettas.

It began during Italy’s tough coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, when the automatically operated bells became intolerable for some residents stuck at home.

“It was bam-bam, bam-bam all day long,” said Mauro Zerial, the organiser of the petition, who counted 550 strokes a day between Monday and Saturday, and 1,350 on a Sunday. “It would start at 6am, with 70 strokes for the Ave Maria, then seven at 7am, and then every 15 minutes until another long ring for the start of evening mass. It was crazy. But nobody wanted the bells to be silenced, we just wanted them to be operated within the norms. And in no way was this an attack against Slovenian traditions.”

Dolina, in the semi-autonomous Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the area was annexed by Italy after the first world war. Today, some of the population speak Slovene and hold dual citizenship. Zalar said the bells’ schedule was very much in tune with the way bells are traditionally used in churches in Slovenia.

A malfunction caused by lightning in 2019 occasionally set the bells off spontaneously, but Zalar claimed the ringing was never excessive, and said some of the 150 citizens who signed the petition were duped into believing they were supporting a cause to get the bells fixed.

MEP Ljudmila Novak said the issue was raised in Brussels after members of the Slovenian community in Dolina turned to her and her colleagues “in distress”.

“The Slovene minority is protected by special laws so that it can preserve its national identity and customs. These laws also include church rites,” she said. “We ask the commission in what way it will act to eliminate the disproportionate interference with religious freedom and cultural tradition in an area where the autochthonous Slovenian national community lives.”

The bells were relinquished by the judge in late January, albeit with an order for their use to be restricted. But silence prevails as the church struggles to come up with a ring schedule adapted to the new rules.

Sara Merlak, who collected signatures for the petition, claimed they were forced to turn to the judiciary after the church failed to collaborate.

“All we wanted was for the Ave Maria to be moved to 7am,” she said. “Now we all miss the bells.”

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