The families are responding to an ultimatum from an Islamic guerrilla group calling itself the Green Brigades which is holding and threatening to kill the hostages unless a major demonstration is organized in Rome. A videotape of the three men -- all security men working for a private firm -- broadcast Tuesday on the Dubai-based satellite television station al-Arabiya specifically demanded "a big protest (demonstration) against the war in your capital, publicly rejecting the politics of your prime minister."
The demand had been cleverly fashioned to exploit the situation in Italy, where public opposition had been strong against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ardent support of the U.S.-led Iraq war policy, and where left-wing parties have staged highly successful anti-war demonstrations.
But left-wing opposition parties have backed Berlusconi's conservative coalition in its resolve not to negotiate with the guerrillas. So the Italian left found itself in the contradictory situation of having to refuse to protest against the war -- something it has been doing for the past 15 months.
Leading opposition parties such as the left-of-center Margherita (daisy) ruled out any demonstration because that would be giving in to the kidnappers. Enzo Bianco, a leading leftist politician, said, "It doesn't make sense to declare that there will be no negotiation, and then to hold this demonstration."
The government has even less interest in staging a demonstration against its own Iraq policy. "To organize a pacifist demonstration at this stage would amount to a surrender to criminals and fanatics," declared Fiorello Provera, a parliamentarian from the right-wing Northern League and chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Italian Senate. "People of good faith are being manipulated by the terrorists."
Lacking support from any but the smaller fringe political groups such as the Italian Greens, the families called a press conference and appealed directly to the public to join them in a demonstration which they hope will placate their loved ones' captors.
Francesco Cupertino, brother of Umberto, told reporters, "We appeal to peoples' patriotic sense to unite with our sorrow in one voice." His own voice full of emotion, he said people should join their march, "so that we will no longer hear the sorrowful cries of children who are suffering, the despair of mothers and fathers for children who will not be coming back home, the loneliness of wives who have lost husbands."
A sprinkling of politicians have said they will attend, but as individuals and not representing their respective parties. More surprising is the sizeable number of Italian-based Muslims who have signaled their intention of joining the march, including the imam of Turin, Bourki Boutcha, and Nour Dachan, president of the Union of Italian Islamic Communities.
Appeals from the families to the Vatican to support the demonstration have also met with stony silence -- at least publicly. A Vatican source said Wednesday, "There is great respect and compassion for the families, but there won't be any official statement on Thursday's demonstration." The Vatican will not comment on a further family request for an audience with Pope John Paul II.
What lends a chilling credibility to the Islamic militants' threats is that a fourth hostage, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, was killed by his captors after they were taken nearly three weeks ago. A videotape of Quattrocchi's execution was sent to the satellite station al-Jazeera, but the station refused to broadcast it, saying it was too gruesome.
Analysts noted that the Green Brigades have made no promise to release the hostages even if they deem the demonstration acceptable. They have said only that the lives of the men will be spared. So further demands seemed likely.
Berlusconi said Wednesday that the government was in contact with groups that could help secure the release of the three Italians, but refused to give details. The hostage situation has confronted the Rome government with a dilemma of its own. On the one hand, the government appears determined not to deal with the Islamic militia. But analysts believe that the death of the three hostages would create such strong public reaction that Berlusconi would come under tremendous pressure to pull Italian troops out of Iraq.