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Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's conservative Catholic who had to eat his words



Italy's EU commissioner-designate Rocco Buttiglione has embellished a reputation for outspokenness since he was announced as Rome's nominee for the sensitive justice and security post last July.

The straight-talking 56-year-old, who had been Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's European affairs minister since 2001, is a Catholic conservative with positions close to the Vatican on abortion and artificial insemination.

His ties with the Vatican are such that he is considered a close friend and advisor of Pope John Paul II and has even written a book about the pontiff.

However, it is Buttiglione's controversial views on homosexuality, as well as his appearing to relegate the role of women to maternity, which has rocked the political establishment in Brussels.

In confirmation hearings earlier this month, he outraged liberals when he said he believed homosexuality was a "sin" and suggested that women's role was to have children and rejoice in the protection of their husbands.

Buttiglione, the incoming justice commissioner, has insisted however his views on morality would not affect his political role, and that he would defend homosexuals from discrimination.

Last weekend, he was forced to hit back after Italian newspapers reported him as saying that single mothers who brought up children alone were "not very good".

He claimed he had been using an analogy to describe the current state of Europe's relations with the United States, and that his words were maliciously taken out of context.

Exasperated, he claimed he was the victim of "an anti-Christian inquisition" by some sections of the European Parliament, a committee of which has already rejected him as commissioner, albeit in a non-binding vote.

"There is a hate campaign being waged against me," he claimed, adding that "whatever I say is being interpreted the wrong way".

Buttiglione has not been shy about airing his views in the past, even if they did not match the government line.

Last March, he broke ranks on Iraq with his pro-war government, declaring that the war "may have been a mistake" in an interview published by the daily Il Messaggero.

"Perhaps there were ways it could have been avoided," he said. "What is certain is that it wasn't the best thing to do".

In his letter of apology to incoming commission president Jose Manuel Barroso on Thursday, he seemed to be delivering the same assessment about his own recent comments.

He said he "deeply regret(ted) the difficulties and the problems that have arisen as a consequence of my hearing," and offered to give up some of his powers, particularly those concerning discrimination and sexual harassment.

Buttiglione is a long-time member of the conservative Catholic group Communion and Liberation, and taught philosophy at a Rome university before entering politics.

He is a member of the tiny Christian Democrat Union party in Berlusconi's coalition.

A native of Gallipoli, a coastal town in Italy's southern Puglia region, Buttiglione is often seen with a cigar between his teeth. He is married with four daughters.

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