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 , Correspondent

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.

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.

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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.

“It's what I call the Islamic exceptionalism,” argues Professor Allievi. “When it's about Islam, the usual rules are no longer valid and Europe betrays its own principles of freedom and equality.”

But Matteo Salvini, a European Parliament member from the Northern League, says he has good reason to seek an exception for Islam: “In Milan there are plenty of religious buildings and we never have had any problems with Jews, Buddhists, or Protestants. How so we have had so many problems with Muslims?”

Last winter there were a series of arrests in Northern Italy among Muslim immigrants accused of having ties to terrorist organizations. In November, for instance, two Pakistani nationals were arrested on the charge of having raised funds for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, where 173 people lost their lives. In a similar move, a judge in Milan issued 17 arrest warrants for people accused of raising 1 million euros ($1.49 million) to fund terrorist activities in Algeria. 

Not just a religion?

To those pointing out that freedom to practice one's religion is a constitutional right, Salvini replies that “Islam is not just a religion." In his view, it “is a tool to spread a way of life and political views that are not compatible with Western democracy." The Milan native says “there is no need to build a mosque here.” He agrees with the idea of holding a local referendum, confident most Milanese would reject the mosque.

Salvini believes the major obstacle lies in the “lack of a reliable partner” on the Muslim side. “Once we would have a credible interlocutor, with no ties with jihad, we can talk about building a mosque.”

“Again, this proves that, when it comes to Islam, authorities don't feel obliged to play according to the rules," says Allievi, the sociologist. “Could you imagine a politician refusing to meet with the chief rabbi of Milan because he doesn't consider him a reliable partner?”

Milan's Muslim community is ethnically divided and relies on about 10 cultural centers that provide prayer spaces and educational services. None of them have a proper mosque, although one was built in the early 1980s in Segrate, a small town outside of Milan.

“It's a matter of dignity, 100,000 people need a proper place to pray, until now we have been forced to celebrate Ramadan and other high holidays in the most random places, including garages, disused sheds, and movie theaters,” says Abdelhamid Shaari, president of the Islamic Institute of Jenner boulevard, one of the major Muslim organizations in town.

Shaari says his organization has been seeking local permission to build a mosque for more than 20 years. “We haven't ever received an answer at all, the mayor has always refused to meet our representatives”

Shaari says he does not expect local authorities to pay for the project. “I see two possibilities here: either they provide a plot of public land which we would pay for and where we would build a mosque at our expenses, or they allow us to buy private land and ensure we will receive all the permits to make our building open to the public.”

In Italy, construction permits are strictly regulated and one needs loads of permits to open a building for public use. Shaari's main concern is that, because of Islamophobia, if the Muslim community simply buys an existing building and turns it into a mosque it will never get all the required papers.

“We want an agreement... making sure they will grant us all the permits,” he says. “It would be all to easy for the administration to use bureaucracy to stop our project.”

WATCH VIDEO: Build a mosque near ground zero?

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