The political temperature went up in Italy following the news that Pope Benedict XVI will give an audience to a group of the European Popular Party-European Democrats; the most numerous political group in the European parliament with 264 members, including 10 EU prime ministers, which will be holding its congress in Rome at the end of March. The group should have included the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi leader of the Forza Italia party, the leader of the chamber of deputies, Pier Ferdinando Casini of the Union of Chrisitan Democrats (UDC), both from the centre right coalition, and Clemente Mastella the leader of a small political group, the Democratic Union for Europe, (Udeur), which is a member of the centre left coalition. The audience will take place only a few days before the Italian general election on 9-10 April.
It is unusual for the pope to have contact with Italian politicians during the electoral campaign and parties of the centre left have expressed surprise and in some cases disappointment at the papal decision. One of the political groups of the centre left, La Rosa nel Pugno, the ex-Radical party, claims that the Vatican is becoming too closely involved in the elections of a lay state.
Such was the outcry in Italy when the news of the audience was made public that both Berlusconi and Casini have now said that they will not attend the audience after all.