Under an order signed by Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, governor of Vatican City, all traders who sell religious souvenirs from trays round their necks have been banned from St Peter’s Square, which is considered an extension of St Peter’s Basilica and therefore holy ground as well as an integral part of Vatican City.
Sellers licensed by the Rome city council said they would continue to trade just outside the piazza, on Italian territory. However Jewish souvenir sellers have been licensed since the sixteenth century not by the Italian state or the Rome council but by the papacy.
The tradition dates to the pontificate of Paul IV (1555-59), who confined Jews to the Rome ghetto but allowed them to practice “street trades”, such as dealing in bric a brac but also in crucifixes, rosaries and pictures of saints and Popes.
There are still 110 Jewish souvenir sellers in Rome. Settimio Limentani, 45, whose father was sent to Auschwitz, said he had been selling religious souvenirs at St Peter’s for over thirty years. “If they chase me away, it’s the end for me and my family” he told La Stampa.
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A previous attempt to drive Jewish traders from the square during the reign of John Paul II was abandoned when the sellers appeared with armbands bearing the Star of David. The then Pope, on learning what was hapenning revoked the expulsion order. The protesters said they would appeal to Pope Benedict XVI, his German-born successor, who has made Christian-Jewish relations and inter-faith dialogue a priority of his pontificate, and to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, or Prime Minister.
Alfredo Chiarelli, the organiser of the protest, said “We want the world to know that the Vatican is throwing out Jews at Christmas time”. He said they had the backing of Riccardo Di Segni, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who was interceding on their behalf.