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Making Space For Islam In Catholic Italy

Competing Muslim groups are vying for official recognition from the Italian state — and a share of the country's "8 per 1,000" taxpayer pie.

Muslims devotees attend a morning street prayer in Rome
Muslims devotees attend a morning street prayer in Rome
Giacomo Galeazzi and Ilario Lombardo

ROME — For the most part they're garages, shops, former warehouses, even basements or attics, all of them repurposed as prayer rooms and called mosques. Estimates vary, but there may be more than 700 such places across Italy.

A legislative loophole that prevents new institutional places of worship from appearing forces Muslims to pray where they can. What's clear is that when people feel the need to pray, they do it — with or without minarets.

On the north side of Rome, it's Friday prayer at the Great Mosque, the only one of Italy's many mosques that is officially recognized as a religious facility. Outside, the chauffeured cars of ambassadors from various Islamic countries form a line.

Meanwhile, at Centocelle, on the southern outskirts of the city, a man who works with the imam collects donations from congregation members who are on their way home. A sign on the door of this mosque — set up inside the garage of a large building — instructs people to leave "5 per 1,000" to the Islamic association that is based here.

These parallel scenes of an ordinary weekly ritual shape the two contrasting sides of Italy's second largest religion, as calculated by number of adherents (1.6 million). In requesting "5 per 1,000," there's a need for zakat (charity), but also to fill the financial shortfall caused by the absence of an agreement between any of the country's Islamic groups and the Italian government. Without this, mosques cannot benefit from Italy's "8 per 1,000" law, which allows taxpayers to return 0.8% of their annual income to an organized religion recognized by the state, or to the state's social assistance program.

A representation rift

A feud has now broken out within the Italian Muslim community over money and mosques, and several different Muslim groups are vying to be the dominant Islamic point of reference for the state.

On May 12, the Italian Islamic Confederation (CII) — which sprung from the local Moroccan community — formalized its request for recognition from the state. The Italian Islamic Religious Community (CO.RE.IS), led by Yahya Pallavicini, and the Union of Italian Islamic Communities (UCOII) had previously failed in similar attempts.

These three groups are the key players in a battle made more intense by the foreign Muslim governments that steer their political and religious leanings — to the tune of millions in funding.

Massimo Introvigne's Istituto Cesnur, formed in 1988 to study new religions in Italy, has reported "a major representation problem" for Islam in Italy. The most visible groups — UCOII, CO.RE.IS and the CII — actually represent a minority of mosques, with most Islamic places of worship self-managed by national communities, notably from Bangladesh and Turkey.

Fear and misunderstandings

The unofficial status of Italian mosques feeds uncontrollable speculation and fear, leading to knee-jerk characterizations in the media as "terrorist dens," a definition that reflects neither reality nor the findings of the Ministry of the Interior. "Hate preaching really takes place online and in jail," says Filippo Bubbico, vice minister of the interior.

Though the monitoring of Italy's mosques is constant, with special forces of the Italian police infiltrated and secret service agents regularly in contact with imams, the ubiquity of makeshift mosques promotes a feeling of fear and danger in many communities. The lack of national legislation concerning religious entities not formally recognized by the State — such as Italy's Islamic associations — is to blame.

As things stand, individual regions and municipalities are left to legislate "unofficial" religious entities as they see fit, paving the way for Lombardy, for example, to pass an anti-mosque law that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.

Italy's lack of preparation for and understanding of these issues is glaringly evident: In general, Italians consider the imam equivalent to a parish priest, when in reality, he's the one who leads prayer services. Among Sunnis, who have neither hierarchy nor clergy, the imam is the preacher, but also a kind of reference figure chosen by the community.

People also tend to speak of a mosque the way they speak of a parish, but it's actually much more. On the rugs of the mosque people pray, sleep, and study; children learn languages; and people talk politics and settle disputes.

All of the people and institutions involved agree on the need to bring Italy's mosques to light publicly, with more attractive, and visible buildings. Whether they have minarets or not remains to be seen.

Monitoring the mosques

Meanwhile, reports of mosques at a high risk of radicalization regularly reach Interior Ministry. The list includes some of the largest mosques, such as those of Piazza Mercato in Naples, Viale Jenner in Milan or Centocelle in Rome, all of which are under special surveillance on Friday prayer days.

In the southeastern outskirts of the capital, where Lazio and Rome football flags fly above halal butcher shops, we meet with Mohamed Ben Mohamed, who has just finished leading a prayer service in Arabic and then in Italian.

"We don't all fit into a single service," he explains. Outside his office, men and women wait to speak with him, hoping to ask for advice. "We Muslims are the first not to want to stay in these places," he says. "In 2007, after they arrested one of the London attackers who had been here, they came to search us. We're in constant contact with men from the secret services. I have their numbers saved in my cell phone."

Like all imams, Ben Mohammed dreamed of a more dignified place than this garage, where each year the congregation grows. That's why a few months ago, amidst the protests of local residents, he signed for the purchase of an old furniture factory belonging to Stefano Gaggioli, former president of Sviluppo Italia. The four-story building near Piazza delle Camelie cost 4 million euros, paid for with a donation to UCOII from Qatar Charity.

[rebelmouse-image 27090193 alt="""" original_size="1024x768" expand=1]

The central mosque of Rome — Photo: Lalupa

Money and affiliations

The Qatari charity branch is a constant, controversial presence in European Islamic communities. Israeli and U.S. security services suspect that its humanitarian aid contributions mask activities sympathetic to terrorist fringe-groups. Regardless, the group's investments in Italy show no sign of slowing down.

"Twenty-five million euros arrived from Qatar," Elzir Izzedin, the imam of Florence and president of UCOII, explains. "We need money. Mosques are forced to finance themselves. Without the ‘8 per 1,000" I'll accept funding from whomever. Of course, there are countries offering financial support that don't much care for the idea of an autonomous Italian Islam."

Some, however, such as Introvigne of the Istituto Cesnur, think that the "8 per 1,000" status still wouldn't stem the flow of money from Islamic countries. The Italian government, for its part, says the lack of unified goals among the country's various Islamic groups has prevented them from obtaining the coveted "8 per 1,000" status.

"That's the usual excuse," both Izzedin and Pallavicini respond, though they are part of competing associations. There's no love lost between UCOII and CO.RE.IS. The former is accused of an excessive closeness with the Muslim Brotherhood, while the latter is often dismissed as a group of Italian converts who have little in common with immigrant Muslims.

In spite of these differences, both groups are proposing the same solution: Two separate agreements with the state, leading to their official recognition. "They did it with the Buddhists, with those who follow the Tibetan school of thought and the Soka Gakkai. So why can't they do it with us?" is the refrain.

Saudis and Moroccans

The CII — the de facto manager of Rome's Great Mosque through its control of Italy's Islamic Cultural Center — has positioned itself as the third contender for national dominance. But even it is experiencing inner conflict, between the Saudis, who by statute choose its president, and the Moroccans, who nominate its secretary general.

Abdellah Redouane has been secretary general for the past 18 years — too long, according to some, who believe his administration lacks transparency and is disconnected from the needs of the community. For many, Rome's Great Mosque is more of a diplomatic branch, a place for power relations, than a local hub for popular Islam.

Rabat is backing the CII with a clear goal in mind: to prevent Moroccans, who make up Italy's second largest Islamic community after the Albanians, from radicalizing and committing violent acts.

Six recent arrests in Lombardy and Piedmont — almost all of Moroccans — support the need for such efforts. In exchange for official recognition from the state, the CII is offering Italy the support of a moderate Islam, one that follows the model of Rabat's institute for imams, which trains religious leaders and women to combat false interpretations of the Koran propagated by ISIS and Al Qaeda. The idea is to replicate this teaching with university courses offered in Italy.

In short, Moroccans are positioning themselves as the institutional partners of the government, led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who will be in Morocco in July and will need to be careful not to displease Italy's economic partners in the Gulf region.

Planning an Islamic university

The CII, however, feels squeezed. In northern Italy, part of the Moroccan community belongs to the Muslim Participation and Spirituality Association (PSM), which, together with the Islamic Association of the Alps Onlus, constitutes the Italian branch of Morocco's never-formally-recognized Justice and Charity party.

Then there are the Saudis who, through the worldwide Muslim League, are bestowing lavish sums on new mosques without having a real popular following. Their strength lies with the imams sent specially for religious ceremonies during Ramadan: As state preachers, they follow Wahhabism, the most traditionalist of Sunni branches.

Aboulkheir Breigheche, an imam in Trentino and president of the Italian Association of Imams and Religious Guides, has refused to accept Saudi funding. He's busy building Italy's first Islamic university in a villa in San Giovanni Lupatoto, outside Verona. "The goal is to train imams who are well-versed in Italy's culture, laws and language, and who will appear in an official roster," he says.

Previously, a similar initiative in Lecce, Apulia, failed to pan out. For Pallavicini of CO.RE.IS, the idea of an Islamic university is a "farce" because it would place the entire network of Italian mosques under the influence of a single school of thought, namely that of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We said no to money from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates," Breigheche replies. "Because then we would have had to accept very specific theological leanings, such as Wahhabism and Salafism."

Ultimately, though, funding for the university will still come from the Gulf region: through the UCOII — from Qatar, as usual.

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