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Pious note from Berlusconi at end of tough year

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has written to the pope saying Christian values guide his government's work, the latest evidence of his pious tone as he eyes Catholic voters.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has written a Christmas letter to the pope saying Christian values guide his government's work, the latest evidence that the premier beset by a sex scandal is taking an increasingly pious tone as he eyes Catholic voters.

The letter follows a new Berlusconi mantra — "Love conquers hatred and envy" — and his public pardon of the man who recently assaulted him, breaking his nose and two teeth.

The attack, and images of a bleeding and shocked Berlusconi, generated a wave of sympathy for the premier and quieted at least temporarily Italy's rancorous political discourse. By taking the moral high ground, analysts say, Berlusconi is capitalizing on that sympathy while also warming relations with the Vatican.

Berlusconi's conservative forces have a solid majority in parliament, but his purported dalliances with a prostitute strained relations with the Catholic Church earlier this year. Such ties have long been politically important in the largely Roman Catholic country.

His recent overtures come amid continuing talk of the creation of a new centrist party to challenge Berlusconi's People of Freedom party that would be headed by politicians close to the Vatican.

Divorce announcement
The sex scandal erupted in April after Berlusconi's second wife, Veronica Lario, announced she was divorcing him, citing his presence at the birthday party of an 18-year-old model and his fondness for younger women.

After the story broke, several women — including a high-end prostitute — came forward to say they had been paid by a Berlusconi associate to attend parties at the premier's homes. The prostitute produced what she said were audio recordings of the night the two purportedly spent together.

Berlusconi denied any improper relationships with women and said he had never paid a woman for sex. But he admitted he was "no saint" and promised to turn over a new leaf.

In the letter to Pope Benedict XVI, Berlusconi said Christmastime was an "important moment of reflection" for all, reminding every one of Christ's message of peace and fraternity.

"I can confirm that the Christian values pronounced by the pontiff are always present in the action of my government, which will adopt all the measures necessary to guarantee peace and serenity in society," he wrote.

Even more telling of Berlusconi's new focus has been his response to the Dec. 13 assault, in which a man with a history of psychological problems hurled a souvenir statue of Milan's cathedral into the premier's face as he signed autographs at a rally.

Berlusconi, who carefully controls his image and has had plastic surgery in the past, spent four days in the hospital with a broken nose and two broken teeth and hasn't been seen in public since his discharge.

But earlier this week, Berlusconi phoned supporters to say he had forgiven Massimo Tartaglia, who remains in custody.

And from his hospital bed, the billionaire media mogul who came to political office touting the football slogan "Forza Italia!" or "Go Italy!" issued a new mantra: "Love conquers hatred and envy," which is now emblazoned on his party's Web site.

His injuries stirred public sympathy, and recent polls suggest his popularity had risen as a result.

Franco Pavoncello, political science professor and president of Rome's John Cabot University, said Berlusconi was clearly capitalizing on the sympathy the attack created by going above the political fray to pardon his attacker.

"He's rebuilding a political purity out of this," he said in a phone interview. "He completely outpaced his opponents, invaded their own turf by talking about forgiveness."

He said that one of the key sub-themes of Italian politics was who speaks for the Catholic Church within government — a role Berlusconi clearly wants for himself after splitting with the pro-Vatican lawmaker Pierferdinando Casini. Casini heads a small but influential Christian Democrat party and is seeking to win over allies for a new centrist party.

Mending frayed ties?
Pietro Grilli Di Cortona, a political science professor at Roma Tre university, said Berlusconi's gestures weren't so much a turnabout as evidence of the importance all Italian leaders place in maintaining solid relations with the Vatican and Berlusconi's desire to mend ties that frayed during the sex scandal.

"Regardless of whether you like it or not, the church enjoys the approval of Italian voters," he said.

But at least one Berlusconi opponent isn't convinced that Berlusconi's newfound values are sincere. Antonio Di Pietro, an anti-corruption prosecutor-turned-lawmaker, wrote his own Christmas letter — addressed to Baby Jesus — in which he called Berlusconi the "devil."

"You know what the devil is like," he wrote. "You can't trust him."