The priest's accuser, an atheist, says the Roman Catholic Church has been deceiving people for 2000 years with a fable that Christ existed and he accused the priest of violating two laws by furthering the assertion.

Lawyers for the prelate, the Rev. Enrico Righi, and his accuser, Luigi Cascioli, made their arguments before Judge Gaetano Mautone in a brief, closed-door hearing in Viterbo, north of Rome on Friday.

They said they expected Mautone to decide quickly whether to dismiss the case or order Righi to stand trial.

Cascioli filed a criminal complaint against Righi, his old schoolmate, in 2002 after Righi wrote in a parish bulletin that Jesus did indeed exist, and that he was born of a
couple named Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth.

Cascioli claims that Righi violated two Italian laws by making the assertion: so-called "abuse of popular belief" in which someone fraudulently deceives people; and "impersonation" in which someone gains by attributing a false name to someone.

Mauro Fonzo, Cascioli's attorney, told reporters before the hearing "the point (of today's hearing) is not to establish whether Jesus existed or not, but if there is a question of possible fraud."

'Religious racism'

Cascioli says that for 2000 years the Roman Catholic Church has been deceiving people by furthering the fable that Christ existed, and says the church has been gaining financially by "impersonating" as Christ someone by the name of John of Gamala, the son of Judas from Gamala.

"The point is not to establish whether Jesus existed or not, but if there is a question of possible fraud"

Mauro Fonzo,
Cascioli's attorney

He has said he has little expectation that the case will succeed in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Italy, but says he is merely going through the necessary legal steps so he can ultimately take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, where he intends to pursue the case against the church for "religious racism."

Righi has defended himself by stressing the substantial historical evidence of Jesus' existence, both Christian and non-Christian, and saying Cascioli should not go after him just because he happens to believe it.

He has cited not only the Gospels but non-Christian writers whom scholars say are authoritative sources of Jesus' existence.

Righi's attorney, Severo Bruno, told reporters that he fully expected the case to be thrown out.