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LA STAMPA

In Italy, 'Muslim Village' Plans Run Counter To Populist Tide

A marginalized Muslim community wants to convert an old slaughterhouse into a multi-purpose housing and events space. But don't call it a mosque.

Anti Brexit protestors gather in Rome
Veggia's abandoned slaughterhouse, soon a "Muslim village"?
Cristina Orsini

VEGGIA — The facility won't include a mosque. In fact, there's no plans to turn it into a place of worship at all. But that hasn't stopped opponents from protesting the project — planned by members of a local Muslim community in the small, northern Italian city of Sassuolo — with banners and severed pig heads.

What the community does want is to convert a former slaughterhouse, in the nearby hamlet of Veggia, into a kind of "village" — a multifunctional, Muslim-run center that would be open, nevertheless, to people of all faiths and backgrounds. Among other things, the 2,000-square-meter facility would include an auditorium, a theater, a gym, and several laboratories and classrooms for educational events.

Backers of the project hope to generate thousands of euros in much-needed income for the community by charging people for holding events in these rooms, but their primary goal is to use the space as apartments to rent to nearby residents.

"This investment is important, and it's necessary that we guarantee our economic sustainability," says Hicham Ouchim, a Moroccan-born programmer and representative of the Muslim community in Sassuolo and Veggia who came to Italy in 1990. "We drew up the project with the help of Studio Sao, an architectural firm in Milan, and a local surveyor on the ground," he adds.

A multifunctional, Muslim-run center that would be open, nevertheless, to people of all faiths.

The community has kept some details of the project under wraps, but it plans to release more images and information soon. "We organized an event with the sole purpose of sharing our intentions with the local community, and we invited the local parish priest, the Catholic charity Caritas, and representatives of the town council," Ouchim says.

Hostile reception

Nevertheless, the multi-use center has generated intense opposition from far-right groups and local residents in the emptying town of Veggia. Banners of the far-right Forza Nuova party appeared on the streets. Some opponents sent a far more macabre message by hanging two severed pig heads on the old slaughterhouse's gates. And Carlo Taglini — the parish priest who was personally invited to learn about the project— went on to distribute a letter to his parishioners indicating his firm opposition.

The municipality, for its part, claims it has yet to receive any official documentation on the Muslim community"s plans for the center.

Praying in Turin — Photo: Stefano Guidi/ZUMA

"We haven't begun the legal procedure to set up the center, but we're in contact with the municipality's technical office to verify if our project satisfies the urban planning requirements for the area," says Ouchim. This poses a serious problem to the community's plans for the center, because urban planning laws state that converted butcheries must adhere to strict limits on volume and occupancy.

We're still far short of our goal.

If the project does fizzle, it won't be the first setback for the Muslim community in Sassuolo. In 2016 they finally gave up on an effort to build a similar center in an ultra-modern, glass-and-cement structure in the nearby town of Fiorano.

"In Veggia, we won't have to destroy the building in order to rebuild it," says Ouchim. "We will only restructure the interior to reorganize and expand the available floor space."

The building cost around 80,000 euros, paid for by the contributions of community members and Muslims all over the country, who will also foot the bill for the renovation project.

"We asked for help from the faithful in our community and from all Muslim Italians, and we've managed to raise a significant sum. But we're still far short of our goal," he says. "Our community is growing and we need more space to continue our efforts at local integration, an initiative that has set us apart since we began it many years ago."

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