VERONA, Italy -- Verona — the city of Romeo and Juliet — was the backdrop for a culture clash Saturday, as it hosted both a conservative congress on family values and a march by civic groups who denounced the event as a movement to limit LGBT and women's rights.
The World Congress of Families, which runs through Sunday, revealed yet another rift in Italy's governing coalition, as well as providing a platform for right-wing extremists seeking to reopen the debate over abortion, which was legalized in Italy in 1978.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched festively through Verona — which besides being the literary backdrop for Shakespeare's tale of doomed love is also the first Italian city to identify as "pro-family" — against what they saw was as an assault on hard-won rights for homosexual unions, abortion and divorce.
Italy's far-right Forza Nuova party, while not an official participant at the congress, used the congress as a backdrop to announce plans to seek a referendum to make abortion illegal. Two previous efforts decades ago failed.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a featured speaker Saturday at the congress, said legalized abortion and divorce were not up for revision by Italy's populist government. But the leader of the other main coalition party, the 5-Star Movement's Luigi Di Maio, described the event as "medieval."
Salvini was received with shouts of admiration, sprinkled with cries of "Shame!," in Verona, a city long governed by Salvini's right-wing, anti-migrant League party. Demonstrators against the congress were kept about 200 meters (yards) away.
But the divorced minister, whose two children have different mothers, presented a platform that in some respects was more liberal than many speakers at the congress. While supporting legalized abortion, Salvini said if it was a choice motivated by economics, then the government must find ways to better respond to women's needs. Salvini also said sexual orientation was a private matter but "it's important that there's no discrimination at work or at school."
Salvini was critical of extremist Islam's views of women, saying "there is no space or citizenship in my house for a subculture ... that says a woman is worth less than a man." And he called surrogacy "a barbaric, inhuman practice ... that (transforms) women into ATM machines, microwave ovens that create eggs, produce children."
Salvini called for putting children at the center of family policies, and said Italy needed to accelerate adoption for some 30,000 children now living in institutions. But gay and lesbian couples would not be considered for such adoptions, he said.
Academics and political liberals came out against the congress, while a coalition of 30 civic organizations collected 147,000 signatures to pressure — unsuccessfully — the regions of Veneto and neighboring Fruili-Venezia Giulia and the city of Verona to withdraw their sponsorship of the event.
Facing political pressure, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte's office did withdraw its support. Even the Vatican kept its distance, with secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin saying "we agree on the substance, but not on the mode."
Joseph Grabowski, spokesman for the International Organization for the Family that organizes the congress, said the event was non-denominational and without political affiliation. Speakers included the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco as well as representatives from Italian Pentacostal Churches, religious leaders from Syria and Russia, and the family minister for right-wing Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.
"We welcome anyone who shares just, basic values that there is a plan and a beauty in the design of human sexuality and ... that marriage is a stabilizing force for society," he said.
The IOF promotes families made up of married heterosexual men and women and their children.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the World Congress of Families as an anti-LGBT hate group that works to "ensure the continued political and cultural marginalization of LGBTQ people and to limit access to reproductive health care."
Across Verona, a coalition of civic groups gathered as a counterbalance to the World Congress for Families.
Yuri Guaiana, a spokesman for the LGBT rights group All Out, said Italy is a natural target for such an organization. He noted that three government ministers spoke at the congress and that civil rights for gays and women in Italian society are relatively recent.
"Italy is a country that has a very recent history of democracy," Guaiana said. "The right to choose for women what to do with their bodies and the right for same-sex couples to be recognized are very, very recent. So they're probably trying to pick on Italy, because it's probably the most fragile country in Western Europe."