January 22, 2007 / 3:07 AM / 11 years ago

In Tuscan hills, mosque stirs deep fears

COLLE DI VAL D‘ELSA, Italy (Reuters) - For centuries, bells in a towering Catholic church have tolled daily in this honey-colored town that embodies Tuscan serenity with its landscape of cypress trees and rolling farmland.

But now the start of building work for a mosque in a town park has shattered that tranquillity, laying bare deep suspicions of Muslims which underlie a broader unease in Italy over its growing immigrant population.

A severed pig’s head was found outside the mosque site in an apparent mafia-style intimidation effort a month ago, while construction that began with the mayor’s blessing is now accompanied by noisy protests.

The mosque’s opponents say they have nothing against Colle di Val d‘Elsa’s roughly 400 Muslims, but fear it will trigger an influx of others bringing extremist influences. They also complain it takes up too much space in a communal park.

“This is not a big city and we don’t know if there will be an invasion of Muslims,” said Letizia Franceschi, a lawyer who leads a group against the mosque. “Unfortunately, it is written in all the national newspapers that in many mosques they preach hatred and teach activities that are illegal in our country.”

Outside the mosque site, a small group of longstanding residents protests regularly in tents with the Italian flag fluttering on top. Many driving by wave and honk in support.

Prominent signs reading “Yes to integration, No to occupation” and “The park is for everyone, not the mosque” dot a farm opposite the site. Local newspapers run headlines asking who financed the mosque, echoing a wider fear that it could be funded by extremist groups.

POLITICISED DECISION

If completed, Colle di Val d‘Elsa’s mosque will become only the fourth major mosque in Italy. After meeting for years in a small, dark room with Oriental rugs on the floor and pictures of the holy city of Medina on the walls, the town’s Muslims were ready for a larger space, said their Sunni Muslim imam, Feras Jabareen.

He has tried to show locals they have nothing to fear and that he preaches moderate Islam, to no avail. The Muslim community has signed Italy’s only existing declaration of cooperation with a town hall and even planted a Christmas tree at the mosque site in a goodwill gesture recently.

“The construction of this mosque has unfortunately become politicized, making it easy to create controversies and accusations,” said Jabareen, clutching prayer beads. “Rome has the biggest mosque in Europe -- do people think Muslims come to Rome just because it has the biggest mosque? That’s absurd.”

Colle di Val d‘Elsa’s mayor is tired of the controversy. The town has rejected two requests for a referendum on the issue.

“A wall between the two communities is the last thing we want,” said center-leftist mayor Paolo Brogioni. “The Muslims are just as much residents of the town as any other.”

“SUBVERSIVE”

The battle in Colle di Val D‘Elsa reflects a deeper fear within Italy over a growing tide of immigrants, especially with an influx of illegal migrants from Africa in recent years.

Over one million Muslims live in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, forming close to 2 percent of the population. Most are of North African origin from countries like Tunisia and Morocco. They gather in 612 Islamic centers across the country, many of which double as small mosques, the local imam said.

Their population is frequently attacked by Italy’s right- wing opposition, and the anti-immigrant Northern League senator Roberto Calderoli this month called for a crackdown on the “strange” and “subversive” activities of Islamic centres.

Similar comments prompted the United Nations’ racism envoy last year to warn that the country faced a “disturbing and profound trend of xenophobia”.

Debates over mosque financing and the role of Muslim headscarves are common as Italy struggles to find the right formula for integrating immigrants. The interior minister has pushed for tighter control of foreign funds for local mosques.

In Colle di Val d‘Elsa’s case, a quarter of the roughly one million euros needed for the new mosque comes from a foundation that controls prominent Tuscan bank Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, said the imam -- information confirmed by the bank.

The rest comes from private sources within the country with nothing from abroad, said the imam.

But for many residents the assurances mean little, in the face of what they see as great uncertainty that comes with a steadily growing Muslim community.

“This is a little town,” said Tiziana Cervelli as she tallied the ledger in her textiles shop in the center, away from the protests. “There’s just no need for a big mosque here.”

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