ROME The Italian government ordered an investigation on Wednesday into slurs on right-wing websites against the country's first black minister, a case that has put Italy's racial problems back in the spotlight.
Cecile Kyenge, an eye doctor and Congo-born Italian citizen, was named integration minister in the new government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta last Saturday. She is one of seven women in the government.
Since then, she has been the subject of taunts not only on neo-Fascist websites but was also the butt of race-tinged remarks by a politician of the Northern League, which has been allied in the past with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Equal opportunities minister Josefa Idem ordered an investigation by the National Anti-Discrimination Office into websites which called Kyenge a "Congolese monkey," "Zulu," "the black anti-Italian," and other slurs.
"I am doing this in my capacity as new minister for equal opportunities but above all as a woman," said Idem, 49, who is German-born but, like Kyenge, married an Italian man and took Italian citizenship.
Idem, a former Olympics kayak champion, who, along with Kyenge is a member of Letta's Democratic Party, condemned what she called "vile racist epithets" against her fellow female cabinet member.
She said the slurs that appeared on some far-right websites violated laws prohibiting "instigation of racial hatred" and asked police to shut them down.
On Tuesday, Northern League European Parliamentarian Mario Borghezio caused a political stir when, in a reference to Kyenge, called Letta's coalition a "bonga bonga government".
Speaking on a radio programme, he said Kyenge wanted to "impose tribal traditions" in Italy, and that Africans had "not produced great genes".
Lower house speaker Laura Boldrini condemned what she called "racist vulgarities" on websites and by "a politician".
CONTROVERSIAL COMMENTS IN PAST
Borghezio, who has made controversial comments against immigrants in the past, was also criticised by members of his party. Manuela del Lago, a League candidate for mayor of Verona, said she was "absolutely disgusted" by Borghezio's comments.
Kyenge has said she wants legislation - which the League strongly opposes - that would allow children born in Italy to immigrant parents to get automatic citizenship instead of waiting until they are 18 to apply.
Italy, a country that gave millions of immigrants to the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, has had difficulties welcoming citizens from other countries who come seeking work.
Even AC Milan football superstar Mario Balotelli, who was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents and adopted by an Italian family, has been the victim of racist slurs.
Both in Italy and abroad, he has endured monkey chants and bananas thrown on the pitch. Balotelli seems to anger racist fans more than other black players in Italy, precisely because he is Italian and not a foreigner.
At one match where Balotelli played, rival fans once shouted: "There are no black Italians."
In a statement posted on the club's website, he called Kyenge's appointment as minister "another great step forward towards an Italian society that is more civil, more responsible and aware of the need for a better and definitive integration".
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Michael Roddy)