Expanding Where Early Christianity Once Flourished
ITALY, the boot-shaped peninsula extending into the Mediterranean Sea, has been a place where religious and cultural events have influenced world history. It is a magnet for millions of tourists attracted by the beauty of its diverse landscape, its famous works of art, and its delicious cuisine. This is also a country where Bible education thrives.
True Christianity may first have reached Rome—capital of the then world power—when Jews and proselytes who became Christians at Pentecost 33 C.E. returned home from Jerusalem. About 59 C.E., the apostle Paul visited Italy for the first time. In seaside Puteoli he “found brothers” in the faith.—Acts 2:5-11; 28:11-16.
As predicted by Jesus and the apostles, before the end of the first century C.E., apostate elements gradually fell away from true Christianity. However, prior to the end of this wicked system of things, true disciples of Jesus have spearheaded the preaching of the good news worldwide—including in Italy.—Matthew 13:36-43; Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8; 2 Peter 2:1-3.
A Less Than Promising Beginning
In 1891, Charles Taze Russell, who was taking the lead in the worldwide preaching work of the Bible Students (as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then known), visited some Italian cities for the first time. He had to admit that the result of his ministry there was not very promising: “We saw nothing to encourage us to hope for any harvest in Italy.” In the spring of 1910, Brother Russell returned to Italy and delivered a Bible lecture in a gymnasium in the center of Rome. What was the result? “On the whole,” he reported, “the meeting was quite a disappointment.”
In fact, for some decades the progress of the preaching of the good news in Italy was slow, partly because Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted by the Fascist dictatorship. During that period, there were no more than 150 Witnesses of Jehovah in the country, the majority of whom had learned Bible truths from relatives or friends who lived abroad.
Following World War II, a number of missionaries were sent to Italy. But as shown by correspondence found in State archives, high-ranking individuals in the Vatican hierarchy asked the government to expel the missionaries. With a few exceptions, the missionaries were forced to leave the country.
Despite the obstacles, crowds in Italy began streaming to “the mountain” of Jehovah’s worship. (Isaiah 2:2-4) The increase in Witnesses has been remarkable. In 2004 there was a peak of 233,527 publishers of the good news, 1 for every 248 inhabitants, and 433,242 attended the Memorial of Christ’s death. There were 3,049 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in comfortable Kingdom Halls. In recent times, certain segments of the population in particular have been enjoying considerable growth.
Preaching in Scores of Languages
Many immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe come to Italy to find work or a better life or, in some cases, to escape tragic situations. How can these millions be helped spiritually?
Many Witnesses in Italy have accepted the challenge of learning difficult languages, such as Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Punjabi, Sinhala, and Tagalog. Starting in 2001, language courses were held to teach these willing ones to give a witness in foreign languages. During the past three years, 3,711 Witnesses attended 79 courses held in 17 different languages. This has made it possible to form and strengthen 146 congregations and 274 groups in 25 different languages. Many sincere ones have thus heard the good news and have started to study the Bible. Often the results are extraordinary.
A minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses spoke about the Bible to George, a Malayalam-speaking man from India. Despite having major problems with work, George happily accepted a Bible study. A few days later, George’s friend Gil, a Punjabi-speaking Indian man, went to the Kingdom Hall, and a Bible study was started with him. Gil introduced David, a Telugu-speaking Indian, to the Witnesses. David was soon studying the Bible. Two other Indians, Sonny and Shubash, were living in the same house as David. Both of them joined in the Bible study.
Some weeks later, the Witnesses received a telephone call from Dalip, a Marathi-speaking man. He said: “I am George’s friend. Can you teach me the Bible?” Then came Sumit, a Tamil-speaking man. Finally, another of George’s friends telephoned, asking for a Bible study. George then brought another young man, Max, to the Kingdom Hall. He too asked for a study. To date, six Bible studies are being conducted, and arrangements are being made for four more. They are held in English, although publications in Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu are also being used.
The Deaf “Hear” the Good News
There are more than 90,000 deaf people in Italy. In the mid-1970’s, the Witnesses began to give attention to teaching Bible truth to them. Initially, some deaf Witnesses taught Italian Sign Language (ISL) to fellow ministers who were willing to assist in that field. Then more and more deaf people started to show interest in the Bible. Today, more than 1,400 who use ISL are attending Christian meetings. Fifteen congregations and 52 groups hold meetings in ISL.
At first, preaching to deaf people depended mainly on the initiative of individual Witnesses. But in 1978, the Italy branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses began to organize conventions for the deaf. In May of that year, it was announced that at the forthcoming international convention in Milan, there would be sessions for the deaf. The first circuit assembly for the deaf was held at the Assembly Hall in Milan in February 1979.
The branch office has since paid close attention to the spiritual nourishment of deaf ones by encouraging a growing number of evangelizers to improve in their skill with this language. Since 1995, special pioneers (full-time evangelizers) have been sent to some groups to train deaf Witnesses in the ministry and to organize Christian meetings. Three Assembly Halls are equipped with state-of-the-art video systems to improve program viewing. And videocassettes of Christian publications are available to provide spiritual food to deaf people.
Observers have noticed that the Witnesses care well for the spiritual needs of deaf people. P@role & Segni, a magazine published by the Italian Deaf Society, quoted from a letter sent by a Catholic monsignor: “Being deaf is awkward in the sense that the deaf person needs constant attention. For example, he arrives at the church alone without any difficulty, but he needs the aid of an interpreter to follow everything that is being read, declared, or sung during the services.” The magazine added that the prelate “reckons that unfortunately, the church is not yet prepared to deal with the disability, and he points out that many deaf people are better cared for in Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses than in the parish church.”
Good News Preached to Prisoners
Can one be free yet still be in prison? Yes, because God’s Word has the power to ‘set free’ those who accept it and apply it in their lives. The message that Jesus proclaimed “to the captives” was freedom from sin and false religion. (John 8:32; Luke 4:16-19) In Italy excellent results are being obtained by preaching in prisons. Almost 400 ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been authorized by the State to visit prisoners in order to provide spiritual assistance. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the first non-Catholic organization to ask for and obtain such permission.
The Bible’s message may be spread in unpredictable ways. Prisoners talk to fellow inmates about the Bible education work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some of those inmates have, in turn, requested a visit by a Witness minister. Or family members who have started studying the Bible encourage the prisoners to request a visit by the Witnesses. Some prisoners who are serving life sentences for homicide or other serious crimes have repented and drastically changed their lives. This prepares them for dedication to Jehovah God and for baptism.
In a number of prisons, arrangements have been made to give public discourses on Bible subjects, to commemorate the Memorial of Jesus’ death, and to show videocassettes of Bible programs produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Often scores of prisoners attend these meetings.
To help the prison population in practical ways, the Witnesses have widely distributed magazines that deal with subjects the inmates will find helpful. One such magazine was the May 8, 2001, Awake!, which discussed the subject “Can Prisoners Be Reformed?” The April 8, 2003, issue was on the topic “Drug Abuse in the Family—What Can You Do?” Thousands of copies have been placed with prisoners. As a result, several hundred Bible studies are being conducted. Some prison guards have also shown interest in the Bible’s message.
After obtaining a special permit from the authorities, a prisoner named Costantino was baptized in a Kingdom Hall in San Remo, with 138 local Witnesses present. “I felt that I was showered with affection,” said a visibly moved Costantino after the event. A local newspaper reported the words of the prison warden: “It was with great joy . . . that we granted this permission. Everything that can further the social, personal, and spiritual rehabilitation of a prisoner should be considered.” Costantino’s wife and daughter were impressed with the way accurate knowledge of the Bible had affected Costantino’s life: “We are proud of him for the changes he has made. He has become peaceable, and his concern for us keeps growing. We have renewed trust in and respect for him.” They too have started to study the Bible and to attend Christian meetings.
Sergio, who was convicted of theft, armed robbery, drug smuggling, and homicide, was sentenced to imprisonment until 2024. After examining the Scriptures for three years and turning his life around, Sergio decided to get baptized. He is the 15th prisoner in the Porto Azzurro prison, on the isle of Elba, to get baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. With several fellow inmates in attendance, his baptism was held in a portable pool set up on the prison’s sporting grounds.
Leonardo, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence, obtained special permission to get baptized in a Kingdom Hall in Parma. Interviewed by the local newspaper, Leonardo stated that he wanted to “make it clear that he had decided to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to find a way out of the darkness of prison, but to fill a deeply felt spiritual need.” Leonardo said: “My life has been one of errors, but I have left that behind. I have changed, though not overnight. I will need to continue being upright.”
Salvatore, who was convicted of homicide, is in the Spoleto maximum-security prison. His baptism, held within prison walls, impressed many. The prison warden there said: “The social importance of a choice that leads to better behavior toward all should be encouraged, both for the benefit of the prison community and for all society.” As a result of the changes Salvatore has made, his wife and a daughter are now attending the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A prisoner to whom Salvatore had witnessed was baptized as a dedicated servant of Jehovah.
Some of early Christianity’s expansion and increase took place in Italy. (Acts 2:10; Romans 1:7) In this time of harvest, spiritual growth and expansion continue in the same areas where Paul and his fellow Christians toiled to preach the good news.—Acts 23:11; 28:14-16.
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The Bitonto Assembly Hall and an Italian Sign Language congregation in Rome
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Prisoners are being ‘set free’ by Bible truth
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Spiritual growth continues where early Christianity once flourished