An Italian comic who said Pope Benedict would be punished in hell for the Church's treatment of homosexuals could be tried for dishonouring him – a jailable crime under a 1929 treaty with the Vatican.
Sabina Guzzanti, one of Italy's most pungent political satirists, made the remarks in July before a cheering crowd of thousands at Rome's Piazza Navona. Her comments were widely published and posted on the internet.
The Church, at the time, expressed its "profound displeasure with the offensive words", but a prosecutor in Rome has decided the comments may go beyond satire and break a law protecting the honour and dignity of the leader of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics. The law was agreed with the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
After reviewing the case file, the prosecutor's office asked the Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano, for permission to proceed against Ms Guzzanti with an investigation. No answer has yet been given.
"We're in the Middle Ages," said Ms Guzzanti's father, Paolo Guzzanti, who is a conservative senator allied with the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Leftist politicians said the issue was one of free speech. The Socialist leader Bobo Craxi warned that punishing satire would bring Italy close to a totalitarian state.
Among the treaties establishing Vatican City as a sovereign state, the "Cordatato" treaty provided that offences against the pontiff be punished the same way as offences against Italy's president. Insulting the president is punishable by five years in prison.
Ms Guzzanti, who is famous for mimicking Mr Berlusconi, is a fierce critic of censorship. Her show, Raiot, was taken off the air in 2003 after a defamation suit from Mr Berlusconi's broadcaster, Mediaset.
But Roberto Castelli, a cabinet aide to Mr Berlusconi, said she had committed no crime. "I don't agree with absolutely anything Sabina Guzzanti says, much less about the Pope, but I defend her right to say all of the enormous idiocies she wants," he said.