ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s far-right League party intervened on Sunday to block efforts by a Muslim association to turn a former hospital chapel into a mosque.
The Muslim group last week made the highest offer for the chapel in the northern city of Bergamo at an auction organized by a local hospital, outbidding the Romanian Orthodox Church which had been using the building for its religious services.
But the project proved short-lived, with League leaders in the wealthy Lombardy region, which includes Bergamo, announcing they would halt the sale by using a 2004 law that enables them to intervene and safeguard cultural sites.
“I would never put a Church on sale and I am amazed that the hospital management did not realize what a sensitive issue this is,” Lombardy President Attilio Fontana, a League politician, wrote on Twitter.
“However, we will exercise our right of first refusal (for the sale) and there will be no space for any appeal,” he added.
His decision means the region must now buy the property.
League leader Matteo Salvini warned earlier this year that Italian culture and society risked being eradicated by Islam. “Centuries of history risk disappearing if Islamisation, which up until now has been underestimated, gains the upper hand,” he said in a statement.
Muslims only represent a small minority in Roman Catholic Italy, with the Pew Research Centre saying they will make up 4.9 percent of the population by 2020 against 3.7 percent in 2010.
Islamic associations complain that local building restrictions makes it almost impossible for them to get licenses to build mosques, meaning that they often have to use structures such as garages to hold their prayer meetings.
There was no immediate reaction from the Bergamo Muslim group.
Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by David Evans