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Bananas thrown at Italy's first black minister Cecile Kyenge

By Holly Yan, Lauren Russell and Boriana Milanova, CNN
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Mon July 29, 2013
Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge -- pictured in June -- is Italy's first black government minister.
Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge -- pictured in June -- is Italy's first black government minister.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cecile Kyenge has been the target of death threats and racist antics
  • She became Italy's first black government minister in April
  • Newspaper editor says the bad economy has contributed to racial tensions

(CNN) -- Racist taunts against Italy's first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, took another ugly turn over the weekend when someone hurled bananas at her during a rally.

Kyenge's appointment as Italy's minister of integration three months ago isn't sitting well with right-wing radicals whose racial slurs and antics have overshadowed her tenure.

The banana incident is just the latest.

It took place Friday in Cervia, where Kyenge was speaking to supporters. A man popped up out of the crowd and launched two bananas toward the podium, Kyenge spokesman Cosimo Torlo said.

The bananas fell short of the stage, landing between the first and second row of spectators.

Giancarlo Mazzuca, chief editor of the daily newspaper Il Giorno, was sitting two chairs away from Kyenge.

Italy's 1st black minister faces racism

"I was able to verify which levels can be reached by human stupidity," he wrote in a column.

Police haven't found the person who hurled the bananas. There will be increased security around the minister, Torlo said.

Kyenge shrugged off the episode -- as she has with the other incidents.

In a Twitter post, she called it a sad waste of food when so many people are dying of hunger.

Kyenge, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, moved to Italy in the 1980s to study medicine. She became an Italian citizen and is an ophthalmologist in Modena.

While her ascent to a top government position reflects the success of immigrants, it also has stoked nativism.

Ominous mannequins

Just before Kyenge arrived for Friday's rally, a group smeared blood-red paint and anti-immigrant messages onto mannequins.

"Immigration kills," read signs attached to the dummies.

The far-right political group Forza Nuova ("New Force") claimed responsibility for the mannequins.

The scene was also littered with fliers that said Italy's future growth depends on "protecting the Italian identity," according to the ANSA news agency.

Insults from other politicians

Two weeks ago, Italian Sen. Roberto Calderoli likened Kyenge to an orangutan. Calderoli, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, made the remarks at a political rally.

"I love animals -- bears and wolves, as everyone knows -- but when I see the pictures of Kyenge, I cannot but think of, even if I'm not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan," he was quoted as saying.

After his comments were published, Calderoli said "if I've offended her, I apologize."

"It was a joke, a comment in a joking way. There was nothing particularly against her," he said. "It was just my impression. ... It is all very well that she be a minister but in her own country. Given that this government needs to govern Italy, I hope that it is done by Italians."

Kyenge responded diplomatically, saying Calderoli "does not need to ask forgiveness to me, but he should rather reflect on the political and institutional role that he carries. It is on this that he needs to make a profound reflection also to then apologize."

She added, "Also, he must go beyond putting everything on a personal level. I think the time has come for us to study the problem of communication."

Death threats

Kyenge has also received death threats before visiting an area where the Northern League is powerful.

A local politician recently said on Facebook that Kyenge should be raped so she can understand the pain felt by victims of crime, which some politicians blame on immigrants.

She's been called a "Congolese monkey," "Zulu" and "the black anti-Italian." One Northern League official said "she seems like a great housekeeper" but "not a government minister."

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta appealed to Northern League leader Roberto Maroni to "close this chapter right away."

Read more: Racist abuse of AC Milan star investigated

Tensions over immigrants

Italy has been experiencing its highest level of unemployment in more than 20 years.

In tough times, some Italians focus their anger on immigrants, Mazzuca, the newspaper editor, told CNN.

"The economic crisis is worsening the situation," he said. "Jobs that until a few years ago wouldn't have even been considered by Italians are now becoming precious."

There have recently been more and more reports of Italians beating foreigners, particularly street vendors, Mazzuca said.

He said doesn't believe that Italians generally are racists and hopes Kyenge will be able to ease racial tensions.

"I really think that Kyenge is the right person in the right place," he said. "As an eye doctor, she is able to see in the distance."

Journalist Livia Borghese and CNN's Hada Messia contributed to this report.

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