In Tuscan hills, mosque stirs deep fears

COLLE DI VAL D’ELSA, Italy — 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.

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.”

Reuters, 21 January 2007