Challenge to Vatican Radio Station

On the outskirts of Rome, the hills are alive with the sound of music.

But in Cesano, a town less than 20 miles outside of Rome, radios are not always necessary to hear Vatican Radio's selection of hymns and sermons.

Citizens of Cesano have reported hearing Vatican Radio's renditions of Ave Maria and other favorites — on their intercoms, telephones, and hearing aids. The songs have even been heard resonating from refrigerators and doorbells.

But those who live near one of the huge antennae of Vatican Radio, are also protesting that despite their proximity to the global center of the Roman Catholic Church, they are the last to benefit from the Church's tenet of "love thy neighbor."

Bad Vibes

Cesano is the closest town to Santa Maria di Galeria, a piece of property which is home to Vatican Radio. When Vatican Radio began a small operation there in 1951 with only three antennae, there were just a few residents.

Forty years later, there are now fifty-eight antennae at the transmission facility, a yellow cross-shaped tower that casts a radiant shadow over the city's horizon.

Now, some of the town's 100,000 residents fear it is also emitting deadly radiation.

They claim that the transmitters are causing abnormally high levels of cancer, including leukemia in children and tumors in adults.

The claims are nothing new, but now Italy has decided even the Vatican is not above the laws of the land.

In light of environmental concerns and pressure from consumer groups and local residents, Italy's Environmental Ministry last month threatened to shut down Vatican Radio if it did not conform to Italian standards for electromagnetic emissions.

Legal Wrangling

The showdown between the Vatican and the government was shaping up to become one of the fiercest disputes between the Holy See and Italy in years.

But a commission, comprised of representatives from both sides, agreed to try to agree.

"I think that the solution will be reached in a very brief time," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told the Italian press. "But remember that the Holy See's priority at the heart of the matter has been the health of the people."

The Vatican asserts that because of its extraterritorial status as an independent city-state, it is not subject to Italian law.

"This is like one country saying it will pull the plug on the other," Sean Lovett, Director of Vatican Radio's FM Channel told

However, in a bid to prevent electricity supplies being cut to the station, Vatican Radio announced today it would reduce medium wave (AM) transmissions after Easter.

In a statement, the station said reducing the AM transmissions should help because it was "presumed" the medium waves of AM radio were pushing their levels beyond Italian levels. Shortwave and FM transmissions will remain the same.

Ahead of the announcement, Willer Borden, Italy's Minister of the Environment, called the Vatican's stance "incredible, serious, and absurd."

But Italy's Health Ministry has accused the Environmental Ministry of scientific alarmism. His comments caused a storm of protest from his counterparts in the Ministry of the Environment.

"I realize [Italian Health Minister] Umberto Veronesi is used to dealing with pain and therefore considers a few cases of leukemia due to 'electrosmog' a secondary matter. However, for the mothers and fathers of those children, it is anything but a minor issue," said Borden.

The antennae for Vatican Radio sometimes emit three to four times the Italian limit for electromagnetic emissions.

But three years ago, Italy changed its national limits so that they are among the most stringent in Europe. So while the emission levels of Vatican radio may be illegal in Italy, they would clear legal standards in many countries throughout the world.

More Than Airwaves?

The Vatican asserts there is a lack of hard scientific evidence to support claims the radio station was harming the health of local residents.

"We are well beneath the level of international law, as far as the United States is concerned. The Italian government has decided to bring it to such a low," said Lovett. "There are no scientific links between leukemia and emission levels."

Cesano residents are basing their claims on a local study that found the rate of child leukemia within a mile of Vatican Radio's transmitter was six times the national norm.

By late April or early May, the commission for the representatives of Vatican Radio and Italy's Environmental Ministry is expected to determine what the appropriate levels of emissions should be.

In the meantime, Vatican Radio continues to emit the amount of electromagnetic radiation it believes to be legal.

And its hymns are still heard almost everywhere.

ABCNEWS's Ann Wise and Phoebe Natanson in Rome contributed to this report.