Italian City Welcomes 'Islamic Center' After Banning Mosque

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.

Muslims praying last year in Rome
Muslims praying last year in Rome
Fabio Poletti

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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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