The Vatican City has been accused of plotting to pull down the Italian government by directing a Catholic Minister to resign from Prime Minister Romano Prodi's coalition cabinet.
Former Justice Minister Clemente Mastella withdrew his support on Monday, leaving the coalition government on the verge of collapse and forcing an embattled Prodi to call for a vote of confidence in Parliament.
Mastella, who resigned last week after being implicated in a cash-for-favours scandal, had initially said that his party would vote with the 20-month-old centre-left government but suddenly changed his mind over the weekend.
Leading Italian newspaper
has claimed that the impetus for his change of heart has come from the Vatican which has voiced its disapproval at Prodi's stance on gay rights and abortion.
Alleging that the Holy See was trying to meddle in the country's politics, the newspaper said, "Prodi's government dared to challenge the ecclesiastical hierarchy for the second time and this time it has had its hands burned."
Even according to Franco Giordano, a Communist MP, Mastella is merely a "loudspeaker" for the Vatican and that he switched sides because he was told to.
After Mastella announced his defection on Monday, Head of the Italian Bishops Conference Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco has attacked Prodi. "The country is in pieces. There is lazy administration and a shirking of responsibility,"
The Daily Telegraph
quoted him as saying.
Apart from citing the rubbish crisis in Naples and deploring the policy on gay rights, the Caridnal had accused the government of having blocked the Pope from visiting La Sapienza University after some students demonstrated against the Pontiff's perceived "anti-science" stance.
However, the government immediately denied the charges and said the Vatican had been reassured that security was not an issue.