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Catholic Church backs Muslim struggle to build Milan's first mosque

While New York frets over the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque near ground zero, Milan is pushing back against construction of its first mosque. Local Muslims have found an unlikely ally in the Catholic Church.

By Anna MomiglianoCorrespondent / September 21, 2010



Milan, Italy

American pundits and politicians continue to argue over whether building an Islamic cultural center two blocks from ground zero – where Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center nine years ago – is appropriate.

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But as the debate, centered around religious freedom and the role Islam itself played in the 9/11 attacks, continues in New York another of the world's great cultural cities is arguing over a proposal for its first mosque. And proponents are getting help from an unlikely corner: the Vatican.

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.

WATCH VIDEO: Build a mosque near ground zero?

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."

'Islamic exceptionalism'

Cardinal Tettamanzi's call reflects a wider view among Catholic leaders, says priest Davide Milani, a spokesman for the Milan diocese. “The Bishop's conference is behind Tettamanzi, [the Catholic Church] cares about religious freedom for everyone.”

But it's not clear whether clerical authority will sway Milan's leaders. 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.

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