Milan, the northern Italian city famed for finance and fashion, is home to about 100,000 Muslims, mostly migrant workers from North African countries. But within city limits, there isn't a single mosque.
Local Muslims say they have been unsuccessfully seeking permission to build one for years, perhaps due to growing Islamophobia, which is particularly strong in Northern Italy, where the anti-immigration Northern League has its stronghold.
Now, the Catholic Church is backing the Milan Muslims' quest.
“Milan civil institution must guarantee everyone religious freedom," Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the church's highest authority in town, told La Repubblica daily newspaper on Sept. 4. "Muslims have the right to practice their faith while respecting the law. Often the mosque issue has been distorted for political reasons, while it could become a instrument for civil coexistence."
...Building a mosque “is not a priority for Milan,” deputy mayor Riccardo De Corato of the center-right Freedom Party told the ASCA news agency. Mr. De Corato accused the local Muslim community of being close to "jihadi fundamentalism” and suggested the city hold a public referendum on whether or not to permit the building of a mosque.
“That's pure nonsense, you never heard a politician suggesting we should have a referendum for granting the permit to build a church or a synagogue,” says sociologist Stefano Allievi, author of a study called “Conflicts over mosques in Europe." He points out that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Italian Constitution.
...But Matteo Salvini, a European Parliament member from the Northern League, says he has good reason to seek an exception for Islam: “In Milan there are plenty of religious buildings and we never have had any problems with Jews, Buddhists, or Protestants. How so we have had so many problems with Muslims?”
Last winter there were a series of arrests in Northern Italy among Muslim immigrants accused of having ties to terrorist organizations. In November, for instance, two Pakistani nationals were arrested on the charge of having raised funds for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, where 173 people lost their lives. In a similar move, a judge in Milan issued 17 arrest warrants for people accused of raising 1 million euros ($1.49 million) to fund terrorist activities in Algeria.
To those pointing out that freedom to practice one's religion is a constitutional right, Salvini replies that “Islam is not just a religion." In his view, it “is a tool to spread a way of life and political views that are not compatible with Western democracy." The Milan native says “there is no need to build a mosque here.” He agrees with the idea of holding a local referendum, confident most Milanese would reject the mosque.
...“It's a matter of dignity, 100,000 people need a proper place to pray, until now we have been forced to celebrate Ramadan and other high holidays in the most random places, including garages, disused sheds, and movie theaters,” says Abdelhamid Shaari, president of the Islamic Institute of Jenner boulevard, one of the major Muslim organizations in town.