ROME – A controversial law proposed by the ruling far-right coalition has again brought Muslims and their places of worship to the fore of Italy’s political discourse.
If passed, the law could shut down hundreds of Islamic prayer spaces, a prospect triggering alarm within the country’s 2.5 million-strong Muslim community.
Opposition politicians are also up in arms against a bill that they believe is unconstitutional and a form of “unacceptable discrimination.”
Presented by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, the bill will target prayer spaces that are not in mosques or those that have never received formal approval to be used for worship, such as the premises of various Muslim cultural organizations.
“It’s absurd. It will go against the freedom of practicing a religion, when the state should actually be creating conditions allowing people to exercise their right to practice any religion,” said Yassine Lafram, president of the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (UCOII).
According to a UCOII report published in 2017, there were 1,217 Muslim prayer spaces in Italy at the time.
Only six of these were officially mosques – and recognizable as such because of the typical architectural features like minarets – and roughly another 50 were authorized to be used for worship.
The rest were classified primarily as cultural associations but were also used as prayer spaces, with most of them set up in garages, warehouses, apartments and basements, according to the UCOII report.
The bill, which aims to clamp down on these places, has a provision that would allow prayers there only if the religious activities in question are regulated by an agreement with the Italian state.
Drafted in such a way, the bill would mainly affect Italy’s Muslim community, since it is the largest religious group in the country that does not have any such agreement with the state.
Politicians promoting the draft law have also made no secret that it is intended to ban those Islamic worship spaces.
“Over the past decade we have seen a widespread proliferation of associations of social promotion, which de facto have as prevalent or exclusive function that of managing worship places for the Islamic communities in buildings that do not meet the urbanistic, structural and safety requirements needed for such use,” the bill says in its preamble.
The draft law is now being debated in the environment committee of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy’s Parliament.
Fabrizio Rossi, the Brothers of Italy lawmaker who drafted the bill, said it will force cultural centers to obtain permission if they want to use their spaces for prayer.
He claimed the law will respect everybody’s religious freedoms protected by Italy’s Constitution, according to the minutes of the first debate in the parliamentary committee.
Rossi did not respond to Anadolu’s requests for an interview.
Opposition lawmakers, on the other hand, have blasted the law as discriminatory and unconstitutional.
“In Italy, there are many parishes and oratories in buildings which do not comply with urbanistic rules and, rightly so, are not shut down,” Angelo Bonelli, a member of the Greens and Left Alliance, said in a letter to the parliamentary speaker, urging him to block the draft law.
“It’s an unacceptable discrimination.”
No other choice
Experts say acquiring authorization to use a building as a worship place has always been a very long, cumbersome, and expensive process in Italy.
Attempts to construct mosques have often been met with hostility by local authorities and populations, which has left several projects across the country in bureaucratic limbo.
This is why Muslims in Italy had to resort to opening such cultural centers and use them as prayer spaces, according to religious leaders and experts.
“It’s true they used this escamotage, as the draft law says,” said Fabrizio Ciocca, a researcher at Rome’s La Sapienza University.
“But you have to give a credible alternative to Muslim communities if you close all these centers.”
He pointed out that the over 1,000 associations at risk of being shut down are also important community spaces, as well as education centers for teaching Arabic or the study of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.
Sami Salem, an imam or prayer leader, in Magliana, a neighborhood of Rome, said the Muslim community stands ready to cooperate with Italian authorities to find a sustainable solution.
“We made a lot of sacrifices to create these centers. We are ready to work together with the authorities,” he said.
UCOII’s Lafram said his organization has been in contact with Italian politicians about the draft law.
For him, a bright side to the potential crisis could be a serious discussion with the government about Islam and the status of Muslims in Italy.
“We would be the first to say we don’t want to pray in warehouses or such places as matter of dignity,” he told Anadolu.
“But the other side needs to provide a solution.” (Anadolu)