All was calm around the recent inauguration of the northern city of Pavia's new Islamic Center for Dialogue, bucking a trend of protests around Italy when new mosques are proposed.
PAVIA — Italy is a country with very few mosques, and any plan to build one immediately sparks controversy. But in the northern city of Pavia, interfaith dialogue and an alternative name have led to the proud and quiet opening of a new Islamic cultural center and prayer space with support from all sides of the political spectrum.
The inauguration on Oct. 14 was attended by both the current center-left mayor, Massimo De Paoli, and his predecessor from the right, Alessandro Cattaneo. While the city's Muslims now have their own place of worship, the Islamic Center for Dialogue is not strictly a mosque — a project to build a mosque in the city was rejected by both administrations.
"Pavia is a welcoming city, they bought the building and adapted it with their own funds," said Cattaneo. "I like the name they chose and I'm glad I went. This community has been in Pavia for over 40 years, many of them are doctors and professionals from Jordan and Syria who came here to study at the university."
Two completely different proposals
The new cultural center occupies a gray warehouse in a remote industrial area, with Koranic scriptures on the windows indicating its function. There are no houses, shops, or schools in the neighborhood, only the sound of trucks coming and going.
Despite their political differences, De Paoli and Cattaneo both agree that the cultural center and the mosque were two completely different proposals. "The project for the mosque wasn't clear and the applicants claimed to have funding from Qatar," said De Paoli.
The proposed mosque's connection to Qatar and the potential Islamist ties sank the project's approval. While the Italian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, anti-Muslim sentiment is easily stoked under the guise of security concerns, placing the Muslim community in an unwelcome spotlight.
Pavia is not immune to that sentiment. Cattaneo says he echoes the concerns of local residents, warning that foreigners will soon outnumber Italians because of their higher birthrate. "Mosques aren't the real problem," said Cattaneo. "It's the fact that there are more foreigners born than Italians, this is a huge issue no one is controlling."
There is the same ratio of Muslims in Pavia as in the rest of Italy, but as a university town, the city draws many foreigners. Founded in 1361, the University of Pavia has 22,000 students and counts the physicist Alessandro Volta among its alumni.
Pavia's practicing Muslim community is smaller, with around 400 people frequenting the new cultural center according to the center's imam, Al Hasan Badri. Even fewer Muslims pray at another center in a small apartment on the other side of the city.
Badri has been in Pavia for so long that a local would be hard-pressed to call him a foreigner. "I studied here and my children were born here," he said. "Pavia is a multicultural city."
Badri's community took part in an interfaith dialogue with the local Catholic Church, which repaid the gesture by attending the cultural center's inauguration. "Dialogue between religions cannot only be theological if we want it to work," said Father Michele Mosa. "We also need face-to-face dialogue and personal relationships like we have here."