Islam in Italy


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Italy’s National Institute for Statistics (Instituto Nazionale di Stastica) does not collect data deemed as “sensitive,” which includes data on religious affiliation of its citizens. However, unofficial data from 2006 estimates that between 723,188 and one million Muslims live in the country.1 The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office estimates that 825,000 Muslims live in Italy, of which between 140,000 and 160,000 are Italian born.2 A 2006 report by the US Department of State on religious freedom estimated that approximately one million of Italy’s 58.5 million residents were Muslim, roughly 1.7% of the entire population. However, an updated 2007 report on religious freedom in Italy makes no reference to the number of Muslims residing in the country.3

These differences in estimates are connected to growing and relatively recent waves of immigration, especially in the past 10-25 years.4 According to current estimates, persons coming from traditionally Muslim countries are the fastest growing immigrant group.5

In one statistic, between the early 1990’s and the early 2000’s, the Muslim population has in effect increased by over four hundred percent, from 154,400, to 825,000. In several European countries, including Italy, this recent increased migration has been connected to globalized issues and conflicts, markedly the rapid growth of refugees and asylum seekers beginning in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution and escalating with the Iran-Iraq wars, the two Gulf wars, the Taliban-Russian war in Afghanistan, the NATO-Taliban war, and the civil wars in the Horn of Africa, Sudan, and Algeria.6

In a 2007 report on religion and migration in Italy by Caritas Italia, it is believed that by the end of 2006, of the estimated 3,690,053 foreigners legally living in an Italy, 1,202,296 of were Muslim (respectively 32.6% of all foreigners), compared to 1,099,023 in 2005 (33.2 percent of all foreigners). This change of over 100,000 is thought to be connected to the rise in reunification of Muslim families in immigration trends.7

These “new Muslims” (that is, not Italian born) come from diverse countries of origin. Approximate numbers estimate that of the 825,000 figure of Muslims in Italy, 169,000 are originally from Albania, 172,000 from Morocco, 62,650 from Tunisia, 26,300 from Sub-Saharan Africa, 31,000 from Pakistan, 3,400 from India, and 32,000 from Bangladesh.8 With these diverse linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds, Muslims comprise the second largest religious community in the country; however, homogeneity among the country’s Muslims is not an actuality.9 Migrantes and Caritas have estimated that nearly half of Italy’s immigrants are Christian, based on the religious demography of origin countries. Defining immigration in Italy as an “Islam issue” is thus illusory, and accurate and rapidly changing statistics make reliable data challenging.10

Labor Market

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Although the situation of Muslim immigrants varies considerably with some private entrepreneurs attaining substantial success, religion, ethnicity, immigration, often intrinsically woven. As such, in issues of labor, many new Muslim migrants are involved in employment sectors unavailable to those without higher-level professional qualifications.11 Italy’s constitution stipulates equal treatment for all citizens and foreigners in the field of employment; law 286/98 prohibits discrimination against either citizens or immigrant workers.12 However, whether this is proven effective in practice has been under scrutiny, and certain labor sectors with a heavy immigrant Muslim workforce often endure inadequate working conditions. In a 2005 report by {Medecins Sans Frontieres} concerning seasonal agricultural workers (mostly migrants, many Muslims) in Italy, 5% were homeless, 50% had no water supply in their accommodation (rented housing, abandoned housing), 30% had no electricity, and 43.2% had no bathroom facilities. Inadequate pay by employers was found to be intrinsically tied to migrant workers maintaining a decent standard. Even though employers must provide seasonal workers with seasonal accommodation by Italian law, actual practice gives a different reality.13

The construction sector has a sizable workforce of immigrant workers, and figures on work-related accidents show a disparity between Italian workers and immigrant workers. Of all labor sectors, the construction sector is the one with highest number of industrial accidents and the greatest number of fatalities. In data between 2003 and 2004, the number of accidents involving immigrant workers rose by 7%, while the number of accidents involving Italian workers fell.14

The Italian government has declared immigrant workers as a fundamental resources for the national economy, and has sought to regulate immigration according to the market needs, including recruiting immigrants – though largely for low-skill, lower-paid positions, and jobs which Italian workers are often unwilling to accept (especially the younger generations). In 2000, the Italian government created positions for 6,000 Albanians, 3,000 Tunisians, and 3,000 Moroccans. Concerning religious affiliation, there is no current data on whether or not religion is a factor in recruitment, either an advantage or disadvantage.15

Large numbers of immigrants are either unemployed or are employed illegally, raising concerns about the lack of social protection normally guaranteed by state employment and trade unions. Statistics from the year 2000 showed that 48.3% of Albanians, 27.3% of immigrants from Morocco, and 31% from Tunisia were unemployed. Amendments to law 286/98 provide for the immediate expulsion of illegal immigrants, an punish those who facilitate the entry of persons illegally in Italy with imprisonment. The amendments also limit legal immigration to those who can prove that they have a job waiting.16

However, the situation of Muslim immigrants, or immigrants in general who may be employed in subordinate positions is not necessarily always tied to discrimination or abuse by employers in providing inadequate conditions. Many often lack the level of education required for more qualified jobs, therefore other symptoms need to be addressed [see section on education].17

Contrasting case laws concerning the requisite of having Italian citizenship have impacted the employment of foreign workers in Italy’s public sector. Foreign nurses cannot be hired directly in the public sector, and thus resort to temporary contracts set by employment agencies or in sub-contracts with organizations tied to hospital services, the result of which is characterized by longer working hours, wages which are on average 25% lower than those of Italian nationals, non-recognition of allowances and benefits, barriers in participating in training courses, and assignment to less qualified jobs.18

In November 2006, the Corte di Cassazione (Court of Cassation) ruled that non-EU citizens with a regular residence permit may not be employed with an open-ended contract by public institutions, confirming that laws which declare Italian citizenship as an essential requirement for taking civil service examples were still applicable. In total contrast to this, The Tribunal of Pistoia in the Tuscany region of Italy ruled that the exclusion of a foreign doctor from competing in public-sector employment constituted unlawful discrimination. Similarly, two rulings in Florence ruled that citizenship requirements regarding public sector employment was discriminatory, permitting one Iranian citizen to take part in civil service examinations and another non-EU citizen to take an anesthesiology position in the local health service.19

The Italian project ‘Leader’ – Lavoro e occupazione senza discriminazioni etniche e religiose (Labor and employment without ethnic and religious discrimination) aims to develop a strategy of fighting discrimination in the labor market. The project is financed by the EQUAL program, which has created an experimental network called RITA (Network of Territorial Initiatives Against Discrimination) that is comprised of trade-unions, migrants’ associations, and non-governmental associations.20

Concerning self-employment, reciprocity requirements have long posed problems for immigrants wishing to establish a private business; immigrants were required to prove that their countries of origin provided equivalent opportunity for Italian citizens to establish private businesses. The inability to prove reciprocity provided grounds for rejecting applications for business permits for non-EU citizens – including those with regular legal status and valid work permits. However, the adoption of law 286/98 in 1998 removed this obstacle, and has prompted many Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians, and Senegalese immigrants to establish private enterprises.21

The religious needs of Muslim workers may be accommodated in different ways in places of work. Trade unions have been notably active in assisting with such negotiations, and addressing other problems faced by minorities in the workplace. In several regions, Muslims have successfully negotiated the observance of religious holidays and rituals, for example, prayers and the serving of Halal, or Islamically permissible food. One such example is in the Sicilian provinces of Ragusa, where Muslims workers may request employers to facilitate observances of Islamic obligations, particularly during the month of Ramadan. In the north-eastern parts of Italy which are heavily occupied by industrial operations, a number of agreements have been concluded between factory owners and Muslim employees, with regards to the allocation of prayer spaces and other religious activities; in many cases, Muslim workers are allowed to take prayer breaks during the workday.22


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No legal or political obstacles bar full and equal access to education for all children in Italy, regardless of their citizenship, religious, or national status. In Article 34.1, the constitution explicitly sets forth that “schools shall be open to everyone.” Regardless of their legal status, foreign children have the same right to education, including the same compulsory educational requirements, as Italian children.23

As immigration changes are a relatively new and ongoing phenomenon, there is no comprehensive data concerning school attendance specifically for Muslim pupils. Data concerning immigrant children is available in some regions.24

Under Article 8, paragraph 3 of the constitution, all religious communities, including Islamic ones, may use the classrooms of state schools for religious education when the number of members of the concerned religious denomination is considerable, and when there are no available places of worship. The costs of such teaching is not with state funds, but paid by the religious community. An agreement with the Director of the Regional School Office is also necessary.25

The presence of Catholic symbols, largely crucifixes in courtrooms, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings has drawn criticism and complaint in a number of court cases and lawsuits.26

Under the Italian legal system, it is a legal requirement that schools provide Catholic religious education from an early age, though parents may opt their children out of this curriculum. The alternative to the Catholic education class is a non-religious alternativa class, in which material such as mythology legends, and human rights are discussed – but a minority of parents opt for the alternativa curriculum.27

While Italy is an officially secular nation, the crucifix is found in most classrooms. While not meant to be an overtly religious symbol, its representation is also fundamental feature of Italian culture. An uproar arose in 2003 in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, in which a law court ordered a crucifix to be removed from a school in Ofena. The order came after Adel Smith, then president of the Union of Muslims of Italy, launched a complaint about the Catholic symbol in his son’s school.28 Mr. Smith had initially requested that a Quran be placed next to the crucifixes; however, his request was denied, launching a formal complaint about the presence of the crucifix.29 The order declared that a non-Catholic citizen could legitimately ask for the symbol to be removed from a school that was attended by their child. No law or norm proposed the presence of Catholic symbols in public schools, as Catholicism is no longer a state religion of Italy.30 However, an old 1920’s law requiring crucifixes in all public buildings contradicts the L’Aquila ruling, though the law had not always been enforced or followed. On February 15, 1006, Italy’s highest administrative court upheld this law and found that crucifies should be present in all classrooms, thereby overturning the L’Aquila ruling. In 2006, Adel Smith was charged with defaming the Catholic religion. He was sentenced to eight months in prison for throwing a crucifix out of a hospital window after authorities refused to remove it from his mother’s hospital room.31

While the constitution prohibits state support for private schools, declining enrollment in Catholic schools has led Catholic school officials to seek government aid.32

State and Church

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The Italian constitution provides for freedom of religion. The government provides for some funding for the construction of places of worship, public land for their construction, and maintains a policy of maintaining historic places of worship without overtly bias towards religious practice. However, many Muslims report being unable to construct mosques for worship (for specific information, please see section on Islamic Practice).33

Under Italy’s 1984 revision of the Concordat with the Catholic Church, the country is officially secular, but maintains practice of state support for religion – largely, Catholicism. However support may also be extended, if requested, to non-Catholic allowances. In such cases, state support is governed by legislation implementing provisions of an accord (intesa) between the national government and the religious request. An intesa grants the following:34

  • Ministers of religion automatic access to state prisons, hospitals, and military barracks
  • Allows for civil registry of religious marriages
  • Facilitates special religious practices for funerals
  • Exempts students from school attendance on religious hospitals
  • May provide for state routing of funds through a voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns, to a community

An absence of an intesa does not affect free practice of a religious group, however, privileges granted by an intesa are not always automatically granted. In addition, a religious community without an intesa cannot benefit financially from the voluntary check-off on taxpayer returns.35 Several formal religious organizations have validated intesa’s with the Italian government. However, divisions with the country’s Muslim organizations, in addition to the existence of multiple Muslim immigrant groups, have hindered the Italian Muslim community’s efforts to seek an intesa.36 In 2005, the Italian government helped to set up the Consulta Islamica – a council of Muslims in the country. Further information can be found in the section on ‘Muslim Organizations.’

Muslims in Legislature and Other Political Involvement

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Many Muslims and immigrant minorities are beginning to make a place for themselves in Italian politics, both locally and in the parliament.

In Italy’s most recent elections in April 2008, Muslims were both sought and shunned in their participation. Almost all party lists eyed at least one Muslim candidate, including the right-wing Northern League. However, fewer than expected immigrants made it to the electoral lists for the Italian parliament and senate. There were a total of three foreign-born candidates for the parliament and senate. Among them included Souad Sbai, the head of Italy’s Association of Moroccan women, who was recruited by former prime minister Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom Party, and Khalil Ali running as a senator for the northern Piedmont region from the left wing Rainbow alliance.37

While several Italian Muslims have achieved representative positions in Italy, the only known current member elected to the Italian parliament is Souad Sbai, re-elected in 2008. Sbai is the president of Italy’s Association of Moroccan women and has been elected an MP for Berlusconi’s conservative People of Freedom Party. The head of Italy’s immigrant party pledged full support, saying Sbai is among two immigrants elected who “will have the honor of representing 4 million new citizens living in our country.”38

Souad Sbai

Souad Sbai is 47 years old, born in February 1961 in Casablanca, Morocco but has lived in Italy and had Italian citizenship for nearly 30 years.39 She was educated at the University of Rome, and studied Literature and Philosophy, with her dissertation focusing on Islamic law.40 Trained as a journalist, Sbai is the editor of Al-Maghrebiya, a newspaper for Moroccans in Italy and is president of the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy. In this organization, Sbai is concerned with the plight of women in the context of immigration, religion, culture, safety, and self-determination. Sbai, who considered herself a feminist, argues for the necessity of integration in Italy – especially for Muslim women.41 Knowledge of the Italian language, culture, constitution, laws, and local institutions are vital for a vibrant and successful immigrant community in Italy, while maintaining a balance with respect to traditions.42 Sbai is a member of the People of Freedom Party in Italy, and in the 2008 nationwide elections, was successfully elected to represent the constituency of Puglia.43

Khalil Ali

Khalil Ali Rachid is 55 tears old, born in April, 1953. He has served as a representative of the Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe, serving as a member of the Committee on Culture, Science, and Education, and on the Committee of the obligations and commitments by member states of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee).44 In the April 2008 Italian national elections, Khalil ran as a senator from the Piedmont region representing the Rainbow alliance, which performed poorly in the overall elections.45

Muslim Organizations

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Only one Muslim organization, the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, is recognized as a religious legal entity; all others operate as unrecognized religious associations. The differences and lack of unity among the organizations is one of the primary reasons that no intesa accord has been signed with the government to give Islam and Muslims a more privileged status [please see section on ‘State and Church’].46 According to Italian provision, a religious association is a legal person in private law and obtains legal status by registering into the register of religious associations through court processes. 47

The Consulta islamica, which corresponds directly to the Interior Ministry, is responsible for counseling the Italian government on various issues concerning Muslim integration in the country.48 From as early as 2003, Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu proposed the creation of a council of Muslims – similar to the French model. On September 11th, 2005, the Consulta Islamic (Islamic Consultation) was set up to facilitate dialogue on pressing Issues with local Muslim leaders.49 Minister of Interior Pisanu expressed his belief about the aims of the Consulta Islamica: “expressing opinions and proposing problems to the Ministry”. “The fight against Islamic fundamentalism should be pursued in two ways: treating terrorists as enemies and moderate Muslims as friends.”50 Pisanu, who signed the decree establishing the creation of the organization, also emphasized upon its introduction that the Consulta Islamica would provide dialogue for “Islamic immigrants’ integration – but not assimilation.” However, he asserted that the Muslim community was not “ripe” for an intesa.51

Since 1990, the Unione delle Comunita de Organizzazioni Islamiche in Italia (Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy) has served to offer a collective Muslim voice in dealings with the Italian state. The organization claims to represent between 80-90% of Italy’s Muslim mosques and associations. It has participated and dealt with issues relating to citizenship and integration, and putting out formal statements on matters of major topics of debate. One such example is the issuing of responses following the 2005 death of Pope John Paul II and the London bombings.52

The Centro Islamico Culturale d’Italia (Islamic Cultural Center of Italy) is another major Muslim organization in the country, and brings together representatives of mosques and Islamic associations around issues of common concern in northern and central Italy.53 In 1974, this organization became the last that has obtained ‘moral corporation’ and at present, subsequently had diplomatic representatives in Italy and Vatican City.54

AMI (Italian Muslim Association) represents Italian converts to Islam.

In 2005, an Islamic Anti-Defamation League was created in Italy by a diverse representative group consisting of intellectuals, workers, parents, professionals, students – most of them Italian citizens or had lived in Italy for years, and all of the Muslim. The Anti-Defamation League was created with the goal to deal with the spreading phenomenon of anti-Islamism, to gather, analyze, and spread information about the propagation of propaganda, hatred, and racism concerning Muslims, and point out and fight against the main perpetrators of Islamophobia, be they organizations or individuals.55

The immediate objective is to stop the defamation immediately, ideally through the use of sense and consciences, and if necessary, appealing to the law. Free legal assistance with access to 53 lawyers located all over the country is available when needed or called upon. The primary objective of the Islamic Anti-Defamation League is to guarantee justice and equal treatment for all people living in Italy, including minorities.56

Islamic Education

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Article 33 of the Italian constitution grants private citizens and organizations the right to found schools and educational institutes. Several foreign schools have been founded in Italy by governments of several Mediterranean states, including two by Libya (in Rome and Milan), and one by Egypt (in Milan).57

In 1996, the Muslim Universities League approved a project to run a school to train imams and female social workers. The Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy has also planned for the establishment of an educational center in Bologna to train imams and leaders of the Islamic community; however, none of such attempts have been successful so far.58

In 2005, an Islamic school in Milan was closed, citing hygienic problems as the official reason. The media however, put stress on the idea that famous Islamic terrorists were suspected to have attended the school.59

Security, Immigration, and Anti-Terrorism issues

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Court-approved communications intercepts and wiretapping has long been prohibited in intelligence operations in many European countries, including Italy. However, recent trends show that since 2001, this appears to be changing. A Justice Ministry report stated that the number of authorized wiretaps has more than triples from 32,000 in 2001 to 106,000 and 2006.60

A special law called “Package Pisanu” (after the Ministry of Interior) providing for “urgent measures against international terrorism” was approved in July 2005, by a large majority. “Package Pisanu” consists of 19 articles relating to security, immigration, and anti-terrorism in Italy.61 Below are summaries of a few of the articles that are of note:

Article 1: “Applies to terrorism the established methods of detective interrogation against organized criminality” – in effect, interrogations without a defending counsel.

Article 2: Provides for “a quick expulsion measure by the Minister of the Interior and by the prefects, against foreigners who are considered dangerous to national security, or considered possible supporters of terrorism.” This expulsion measure could be not applied to foreigners who collaborate with the police and other agents of justice. In the case of the “Imam of Turin,” the prefect decided in favor of quick expulsions, without the request for a ‘nulla osta’ approval by magistrate, basing this decision on simple suspicions, without the possibility of a trial or a defense in Italy. Appealing to TAR is possible, in this case, but only after the expulsion has been executed.

Article 6: Measures concerning Internet and mobile phones: whoever buys a telephone card must show documents of identification; personal information must be kept until 31 December, 2007. In addition, network service companies must keep archives of Internet data by customers. The Court of Appeal (not the Final Court of Appeal) makes decisions concerning telephone tapping.

Article 10: “Extends police detention from 12 to 24 hours to identify suspected people. The Public Minister can give permission for a DNA test to be done through a sample of hair and saliva.” These means are useful for identification of suspected people who do not collaborate on grounds of respect for “personal dignity.”

Article 15: Introduces the crime of “terrorism” for “training aimed at creating terror.”

Article 18: Allows the entrustment of security guards and private institutes with “the public security… to concentrate the police forces on matters of international primary safety. Public security is guaranteed in naval ports, railway stations, underground and public transport.”

“Package Pisanu,” which was applied after the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, follows measures applied by the United States and UK governments after 11 September, 2001. While the law was introduced as an anti-terrorism measure, it allows for the permissibility of the Army in public places.62

Reaction to the measures from Muslim leaders in Italy was mixed. Some Muslim leaders said that the measures would only partially work – they may be successful in preventing “London-style” comb attacks, but the monitoring of religious leaders and mosques needed to be increased. Yassine Belkassim, then vice president of the Confederation of Moroccans in Italy, said that Italy’s growing Muslim population is often led by foreigners who are unqualified, that the authority and legitimacy of imams in mosques goes unchecked, and that intervention in these situations are needed.63

In 2007, Italian police investigated several imams in a terror probe. Most notable of these was the case of Mohamed Kohaila, an imam in Turin who was expelled to his native Morocco after his sermons were secretly filmed and deemed a threat to public security. Kohaila has been living in Italy for several years, but checks from anti-terrorism authorities showed that he incited violent and anti-Western behavior. Kohaila has denied the accusations.64

In early 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italy would violate its obligations under the European Convention of Human rights if it deports Nassim Saadi, a Tunisian terror suspect from Italy, citing the very real risk of torture if he were to return to his home country. Human rights group Amnesty International applauded the ruling, as a “landmark” ruling on the absolute prohibition of torture, inhuman, and otherwise degrading treatment. Italian authorities sought to deport Saadi to Tunisia under the “Pisanu Law” which was urgently adopted to combat terrorism. Italian authorities argued that Saadi posed a security risk to the country. In 2005, Nassim was among five Tunisians acquitted by Italian courts of charges of helping to plan terrorist attacks and recruiting militants; however, he was found guilty of forgery and criminal conspiracy, and sentenced to 4.5 years in jail. Italy has unsuccessfully tried to report Saadi since 2006. In reference to reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which both describe the indignity of Tunisian jails, the court said Saadi would face ill-treatment if he were to be sent back. Concerning the prospect that Saadi might pose a threat to the community, the court stated that this “did not diminish in any way the risk that he might suffer harm if deported.”65

In February 2008, Stefano Dambruoso, Italy’s “best known anti-terrorism magistrate,” stated that Islamic extremism is widespread and has been deeply rooted in Italy and Europe for decades. Dambruoso says that anti-terrorism has improved in the past six years due the introduction of the European arrest warrant, and the creation of Eurojust – a body that fights terrorism. “Generally, cooperation to fight cross-border crime has improved, and is destined to continue to do so,” said Dambruoso. He asserts that mosques should not be targeted as breeding grounds for terrorism, and that most Muslims are there to pray and congregate. However, Dambruoso remains firm that some mosques have been used to proselytize, particularly in the south of Italy, and that “we should not lower our guard.”66

Bias and Discrimination

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In Italy, there is no statistical data, either official or unofficial, on the number of court or tribunal cases applying national legislation falling under the Racial Equality Directive. UNAR, or Ufficio Nazionale Antidiscriminazione Razziali (Anti-Racial Discrimination National Office), the specialized body against racial discrimination in Italy last verified 282 cases of discrimination on grounds of ethnic origin or race in 2005. However, the organization did not support a single judicial action at court; UNAR reported that in all cases, discrimination was removed through informal activity such as mediation, conciliation, and moral persuasion.67

Anti-racist organizations such as UNAR have found as recently as 2006, that migrant workers continue to suffer substandard working and living conditions in seasonal jobs. Poor health conditions, living in abandoned housing, and overcrowding were cited as rampant among migrant workers in 2005/2006 reports by the non-governmental organization MSF, or Medici Senza Frontiere (Medicine Without Borders). However, the reports make no distinction among migrant backgrounds, as many there are many non-Muslim Roma living in Italy.68

Several specific examples of discrimination, hostility, and suspicion of Muslims in Italy have been documented.

In 2000, the Archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo Biffi, called for the closure of the country’s mosques and an end to Muslim immigration, calling most Muslims seeking to immigrate to Italy “outside our humanity.”69

There have been many reports of violence against Muslims, including both corporeal harm and property damage. Below are a few examples of incidents in recent years.

  • April 2004: Pork fat and wine were smeared on a mosque in Rimini. Also written on the mosque were the words “Christ the King.”70
  • April 2004: The Minister for the Internal Affairs orders searches to be carried out on 161 Muslim Migrants, on grounds of suspicion and part of an anti-terrorist operation. Three arrests are made on violation of immigration laws, and 15 persons are expelled from Italy for not having a legal title to stay in the country; nobody is held on terrorist charges.71
  • April 2004: The minister of Reforms and a member of the Northern League Party was quoted as saying: “For every day the hostages are kept prisoners in Iraq, each EU country should revoke the residence permit of 1000 Muslim migrants from so-called rogue-states and expel them. Lex taglionis may be a cruel law, but it is the only one these criminal brutes are capable of understanding.”72
  • July 2004: Racist Graffiti praising Nazism was found on the doors and walls of the Islamic Cultural Center in Montefano, Macerata.73
  • November 2005: Threatening and insulting graffiti were found on the premises of the Islamic community in Molinella, Bologna. Including in the graffiti were the words “Death to Islam, we will kill you…”74
  • February 2005: The entrance of the Islamic Cultural Center in Sovilla, Treviso, was damaged by an explosive device.75
  • October 2007: A mosque in the small city of Abbiategrasso, near Milan was the target of an assault – the eighth in the region of Lombardy. A man was seen throwing a Molotov cocktail into the courtyard of the mosque. No major damage or injuries were reported.76
  • October 2007: An Italian company based in Lazio was condemned for selling Quran-printed toilet seats. Following complaints, authorities raided branches of the Orizzonte Company and seized the offensive products.77
  • February 2008: A small bomb was thrown at the Via Quaranta mosque and Islamic cultural center in Milan on Saturday, February 2nd. The bomb caused damage to glass windows, and damage to the entrance area. Abdel Hamid Shaari, president of the Islamic Cultural Institute said this is the result of a racist and anti-Islamic campaign that’s been going on for years.78
  • These are but a few of the many acts of discrimination, bias, and violence against Muslims; there have been many protests against the opening of mosques, resulting in the withdrawal of plans to build Muslim places of worship. There are, in addition, many more cases of vandalism against mosques, prayer areas, homes, and other pieces of property owned by Italian Muslims.79

    There have been several cases of towns and government officials trying to create legislation that bans or regulates the wearing of Muslim symbols in public.

    Islamic Practice

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    The Hijab

    Like many European countries, Islamically affiliated clothing has caused debate on the national government and public.

    In late 2007, the north-eastern Italian town of Treviso ruled that the wearing of a burka may be permitted. Despite legislation that prevents the wearer from being recognized, Vittorio Capocelli, Treviso’s prefect, made the ruling saying women were allowed to wear the full-body covering but may be asked to reveal their features for identification purposes. Deputy director Magdi Allam attacked Mr. Capocelli’s decision as “leading us straight to the suicide of our civilisation.”80

    Italian Muslims commended an endeavor by senior Senator Silvana Amati, concerning a law regulating the wearing of hijab in Italy, as Italian Muslims hold out hope that the right-wing opposition would not block the motion. Amati unveiled an initiative to draft a law regulating the wearing of the hijab in public places, and the law, if passed, will “give legal protection to hijab against opposition by politicians, especially the right-wingers.” The Italian senator said that the motion would stipulate that faces must not be covered.81

    While a frequently debated topic, Muslim women are free to wear the hijab or headscarf in public offices and schools. Under a circular issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Muslim women are permitted to wear their headscarves in photo identification documents just like Catholic nuns.82 However, the 2005 anti-terrorism law 152/1975 doubled pre-existing penalties for those persons convicted of wearing attire that conceals the face, such as a burqua or chador, with the intent to hide their identity. Fines were increased from €1,000 to €2,000, and jail sentence was increased from 6 months to 1-year in jail.83

    Individual towns and provinces in Italy have had their own debates concerning the hijab and other Muslim and cultural garb.

    Gender Topics

    The topic of Muslim women in Italy is rooted in several major thematic issues and debates, namely Muslim women as immigrants, as subjugated in “honor”.

    Souad Sbai, the president of the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy claims that some Muslim women in the north of the country are being kept chained in their homes. Sbai also claims that Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization is slowly infiltrating Italian politics. “In northern Italy, there are women that live chained at home, from the kitchen to the bathroom, without being able to open the door,” she said. Her claims took place during the presentation of a new book by Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena, called ‘The Cost of the Veil – Islam’s War Against Women.’ Sbai praised the book as a gift to Muslim women who have suffered or died at the hands of extremism.84

    A project to help female immigrants in Italy deal with problems ranging from domestic violence to financial and legal problems, has been set up in conjunction go several embassies, and hailed as a success. Maria Gabrielle Carnieri Moscatelli, president of ‘Telefono Rosa’ (Pink Phone) said that in 2007, 156 immigrant women turned to the service, and 300 women directly contacted the association.85

    On March 8th – International Women’s Day – Muslim women’s groups in Italy commemorated the day by discussing rights issues. An event entitled ‘A free woman in a free society’ was held in Milan on March 9th, and included a discussion on Italian, Muslim women’s personal experiences of dealing with integration, and featured representation by several Italian-Muslim organizations. Among the included Young Muslims of Italy, Association of Muslim Women of Italy, and the European Forum of Muslim Women.86

    Places of Worship

    There are approximately 200 places of worship attached to Islamic cultural centers, and three which are only independent mosques (Milan, Rome, and Catania). No official data exists on the number of imams, but it is presumed that there are approximately as many as the number of cultural centers.87

    The main mosque in Rome is controlled by Muslim ambassadors to the Vatican, and has been financially backed by Saudi Arabia.88

    In the next year, several mosques are expected to be considered for opening, including in Naples, Siena, and Bologna.89

    In recent years, the construction of new mosques in Italy has come under scrutiny from politicians and communities alike. Several existing places of worship have come under attack from arsonists and vandals (see section on bias and discrimination), and many right-wing Italian politicians have made controversial remarks about mosque growth in Italy (see section on political discourse).


    Special and separate sectors of public cemeteries may be reserved for the burial of religious minorities. Muslim communities have made use of this opportunity in cities including Florence and Turin; in Trieste there exists an exclusive Islamic cemetery which was built for Muslim subjects from the Balkans when the city still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire.90

    Halal Foods

    According to Italian laws currently in force, animals must be stunned before they are slaughtered; however, there are exceptions in place to allow for Muslim and Jewish rituals in the slaughtering animals according to religious dietary law.91


    The topics of Muslims and marriage shows two issues publicized in recent years, namely the issue of polygamy, and concern over inter-faith/inter-cultural marriage.

    The president of Italy’s immigrant party Mousapha Mansouri has said that there are at least 15,000 cases of polygamy in Italy, and has urged women to call a special helpline for female victims of violence. Mansouri and his colleagues have reported cases of men who converted to Islam with the sole aim of being able to have multiple wives. Polygamy is illegal in Italy, but imams presiding over these marriages often do not keep a paper trail to avoid prosecution.92

    In 2005, Italian bishops gave warning against Catholics marrying Muslims, citing cultural differences, and fears that children born into mixed-faith marriages would shun Christianity. Cardinal Ruini, one of the right-hand men of Pope Benedict XVI, said that it was often the woman who married a Muslim man and it was she who converted to Islam. In a statement, the bishops said that if an Italian woman married a Muslim immigrant and then settled in his country of origin, her rights were “not guaranteed in the way they are in Italy or in other Western nations”. The statement enraged Liberal groups, who accused the Roman Catholic Church of interfering in Italian affairs.93

    Chaplaincies in Hospitals, Prisons, and the Army

    Religious leaders without an agreement under Article 8, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, including Islam, have access to hospitals and prisons to give assistance to patients and prisoners who have requested them. Religious leaders, including Muslim leaders, are also granted permission to visit barracks and give pastoral care to soldiers.94

    Italian prisons often have copies of the Quran on hand for reading in prison libraries. While nation wide demographics concerning the religious affiliation of prisoners is not know, a 2005 Los Angeles Times article points to a 30% Muslim inmate population of in Bollate.95

    Banking and Finance

    In January 2008, Italy’s tax collection agency announced that Italy tax guides would be published in several languages, including Arabic, in order to help immigrant workers pay their taxes. The 28-page guide has been made available on the agency’s website. The initiative is meant to be a part of a plan by the Italian government to clamp down on rampant tax evasion in Italy, and to make filing taxes easier for immigrants who may not be fluent in Italian.96

    A meeting between bankers from Italy and the Arab Gulf in early 2008 was organized in an effort to build stronger ties, and included efforts to build Italy’s first Islamic bank later in the year. While it is expected that the initial customers would be entirely Muslim, the client base has hopes to expand to non-Muslims.97

    Public Perception of Muslims and Islam

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    The Gallup Muslim-West Dialogue Index measures perceptions of the state and Muslim-West relations. The index ranks citizens’ optimism about the state of dialogue; the higher the score, the more optimistic the citizens’ view, with a possible score of 100. In a 2007 survey, Gallup polling found Italian citizens ranked Muslim-West dialogue at 37 – with several European countries ranking higher on optimism (Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, USA, Sweden), Denmark with an equal perception, and only those Spain as having a more pessimistic outlook.98

    The Gallup polling also questioned Italians on several more specific questions.

    A 2006 Transatlantic Trends Report asked Italian citizens if they believe that Islam is compatible with democracy, to which 62% of Italians responded affirmatively.99

    A 2005 polling conducted by UCEI, or the Unione delle Communita Ebraiche Italiane, commissioned a at ‘La Sapienza’ University in Rome to conduct a survey on intolerance among young people. More than 50% of the sample (sample size: 2,000, ages:14-18, from more than 100 different towns in Italy) stated that Muslims “support international terrorism” and have “cruel and barbaric laws.”100

    An 2007 polling conducted by the Migration Integration Policy Index showed that half of Italians believe hat extremis is growing in their country, and over 50% believe it to be an increasing worldwide threat. Most Italians believe that immigrants do not want to integrate, while less than one third blame the lack of Italian integrative infrastructure.101

    Media Coverage and Intellectual Discourse

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    A Gallup polling report released in 2008 examined issues of media presentation of Muslim-West. Of the countries polled, Italian media reported the most heavily on the topic of citizenship and integration coverage in the media.

    In May 2008, the organization Religions for Peace will host an event titled ‘Encounter 2008.’ The event will serve a symposium on religions, values, and European identity. Some 200 religious representatives will be included in addition to European officials, to discuss urgent issues including pluralism, immigration, economic disparities, and community cohesion. More information can be found at the Encounter 2008 Website (

    Inter-faith Projects

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    In March 2004, A major inter-faith dialogue event called “Architects of a plural community” brought together several youth groups with different religious affiliations. The groups involved included the Italian Muslim Youth, the Union of Italian Jewish Youth, FUCI, and the Youth section of the Association of Italian Catholic Workers (ACLI). The event between these youth organizations was a continuation of an earlier 2002 initiative which yielded a joint document on the rights of citizenship.103

    In an effort to send a message of love and fraternity, more than 3,000 Muslim gathered in Milan’s Palaldo stadium in 2007. The gatherers prayed and sang for peace, and offered opportunities to donate for the needy. Verses of the Quran citing respect for human values, piety, and care for the disadvantaged were read, as many reaffirmed that was the true nature of their religion. Similar events were held in the cities of Lodi, Reggio Emilia, and Brescia.104

    Muslim and Jewish youth groups in Italy engaged in an inter-faith initiative in Milan in early 2008. The meeting took place with representatives from the organizations Young Jews of Italy and Young Muslims of Italy, and took place at an exhibition called “The Fairness of Islam” at Milan’s Center of Culture and Missionary Activity. The groups met on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and also featured stories of Muslims killed in the Holocaust, and stories of Muslims helping Jews during Nazi rule.105

    In October 2007, Interior minister Giuliano Amato visited Rome’s mosque to present a ‘Charter of Values for Citizenship and Integration.’ It was the first public presentation of the symbolic document, seeking to bridge the divide between Muslims and Catholic communities in Italy, and is aimed at seeking harmonious integration of Italy’s growing immigrant communities.106

    Political Discourse

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    Immigration and concern over terrorism in Italy and greater Europe have brought about discourse about Islam in Italy, both positive and inflammatory, in Italian politics.

    In September 2001, On a visit to Berlin and in a conversation with journalists just before a conversation with then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi commented: “We must consider the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and – in contrast with Islamic countries – respect for religious and political rights. The West is Superior.” Berlusconi added: “it has at its core – as its greatest value – freedom, which is not the heritage of Islamic culture.”107

    Prime Minister Berlusconi’s remarks sharply contrasted the carefully worded statements by other Western leaders, seeking to avoid antagonizing Islam and Muslim countries by drawing clear lines between extremist behavior, and the faith practiced by most Muslims throughout the world. The leftist opposition in Italy accused Berlusconi of “irresponsible behavior.” Critics feared that the statements could ruin the already tricky dialogue between the Catholic majority and the country’s Muslims. The opposition both denounced Berlusconi’s comments as “naïve” and “dangerous,” concerned that such insensitivity may encourage terrorists to try and find new recruits. The comments by Berlusconi have been sharply criticized in Italy.108

    The ‘Lega Nord’ (Northern League) party plays a significant role in emphasizing xenophobia against Islam and Muslims in Italy. According to this political party, Muslims represent the absolute “Other”; this attitude existed in Italy before September 11th. Vocabulary by the Lega Nord is reminiscent of neo-Nazi phrasing – including such phrasing as “Padana race,” “stranger pollution,” and “non-Islamic town.” The Lega Nord is hostile towards such organizations as Caritas and Migrantes, because they encourage the “Islamic invasion.”109

    The Lega Nord actively fights against the building and opening of new mosques. Federico Bricolo, vice-president of the party, wanted to close down Islamic centers because of the possibility that they may harbor Al Qaeda cells. In 2005, the national coordinator of the Lega Nord, Roberto Calderoli declared the creation of the Islamic Council a “huge mistake.”110

    The Forza Nuova is another political group in Italy. Forza Nuova actively campaigns against immigration and Islam, in favor of “national security,” and seeks to stand for the defense of cultural and religious traditions that threaten Italy’s cultural and religious roots, concerned by the threat of “the invasion of immigrants from the Third World.” It considers Islam as an “ancient enemy” of Western and Christian values. In January 2003, fifteen young people attacked the controversial leader of the Muslim Union in Italy, Adel Smith, during a live television broadcast. The secretary of Forza Nuova in the Veneto region led the young people; they were subsequently arrested and charged with incitement to racial hatred.111

    Following the 11 September, 2001 attacks in the United States, the Italian writer Oriana Fallaci became a major outspoken critic of Islamism and Arabic culture. Among Fallaci’s comments were a rebuke against the West, declaring the West as incapable of reacting to fundamentalism. She also criticized the tolerance and dialogue with Muslims, while receiving much criticism in return for her beliefs and statements. In her books, Fallaci talks about “Eurabia” – a country which is incapable of defending its identity, and makes comparisons between Europe in 1938 and the rise of Hitler; she condemns “new Nazism” and calls it “nazi-Islamism” instead. Fallaci also criticized Pope John Paul II for holding intentions to have dialogue and establish good relationships with Islam and other religions.112

    Salvatore Stefio, a former hostage in Iraq, plans to run in Italy’s upcoming elections on April 13th and 14th under the right wing La Destra party to defend “Christian Identity.” Stefio was one of four Italians abducted near Baghdad in 2004 while working as a security guard. “I am with La Destra to reaffirm the right to defend the Christian identity and civilization against the threat of Islamic fundamentalism” said Stefio. He is planning on leaving the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party run by Gianfranco Fino, whom Stefio says has strayed with their intent on bringing the Quran into schools and letting Muslim citizens run in the country’s elections.113

    In early 2006, senior politicians in Italy’s government launched a policy manifesto vowing to protect Western civilization from what they called ‘threats of Islamic fundamentalism’ and a ‘moral vacuum.’ Speaker of the Senate Marcello Pero said that people in the West were ashamed to stand up for the values, and too often blamed themselves for being victims of terrorism. The manifesto, a document entitled “for the West, Force of Civilization” begins with the statement: “The West is in crisis. Attacked externally by fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism, it is not able to rise to the challenge. Undermined internally by a moral and spiritual crisis, it can’t seem to find the courage to react.” Pera’s manifesto was launched in the background of protests throughout the Muslim world against cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in European newspapers in 2005.114

    In December 2007, a local Italian politician stunned Italians, especially Italy’s Jewish community, by proposing that immigrants ought to be treated with the same severity the Nazi’s used when occupying the country. Municipal Councillor Giorgio Bettio is quoted as saying: “To make immigrants understand how they should behave it would be right to use the same methods as the Nazis.” Bettio went on to suggest that non-EU citizens with work permits who want permanent resident status in Treviso should be placed under surveillance for six months, and that information about them should be collected from their neighbors. “After the six months, if they have behave well, the immigrants can stay. If not, they should be watched for another three months and then expelled,” he said. Mr. Bettio is a member of the Northern League, which campaigns on a tough anti-immigration policy. His comments were met with an onslaught of condemnation.115

    In November 2007, Italy’s former deputy education minister, Mariella Mazzetto, sparked protests after parading a pig on the site of a planned mosque in the city of Padua. Mazzetto, a member of the populist, anti-immigrant, right-wing party, said the act was in defense of maintaining Italian identity. In October, Northern League senator and former minister Roberto Calreroli proposed a regular “pig day,” in which he threatened to take his pet pig on land where Italy’s Muslim communities were planning new mosques. Northern Italy has seen a jump in share of the country’s immigrants, due largely to labor sought for farm and factory work.116

    Italy’s new immigrant party, “Nuovi Italiani,” formed in April 2007 and is the first of its kind seeking political representation and support for immigrants in the country, has actively criticized many of the comments and actions by more right-wing politicians in the country. The party’s president, Mustapha Mansouri slammed the government’s lack of action in its lack of addressing the handling of illegal migration, namely deaths from boat migration, and failure to address the phenomenon.117

    In December of 2007, the Immigrant Party opened an office in the Veneto region of Italy, where according to the party coordinator, many mayors are drifting in a direction of racism. The move came after mayors in Veneto and other areas in northeast Italy imposed a minimum income that immigrants must earn before they are allowed to become residents. Among income and housing discrimination, the party is actively speaking out in favor of educational equality, also under contestation in some northern Italian localities.118

    Papal and Vatican Relations

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    This section will focus on the relationship between the Pope, Vatican, and Muslim – both in Italy and broader inter-faith relations in recent years.

    Relations with Muslims in Italy

    Dialogue between Muslim communities in Italy and pope Benedict XVI have experienced both tension and cordiality in the past few years. In early September 2006, the leaders of Muslim communities in the country were supportive of the pope, when he warned that Asian and African nations to are threatened by increasing materialism and secularism in the West. Heads of two major Muslim organizations in Italy – the UCOII and the World Muslim League echoed the need to have a place for God in active life and Benedict’s concern over materialistic systems.

    Relations with Muslims on a more global scale

    During a later lecture delivered by the pontiff at the University of Regensberg in Germany, the lecture received condemnation from Muslim communities around the world. Quoting a passage from a 1391 and written by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus; many felt that using this quote in the context of his speech was an insulting and mischaracterization of Islam and the prophet Muhammad by pope Benedict. A quotation of the message included: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”119

    Pope Benedict had meant to articulate that the Islamic and Quranic assertion of “There is no compulsion in religion” ought to be a more preferable, than the spreading of faith by the sword or through violence and force. The pope’s lecture contained further discussion of Islam, all part of a larger discussion on “faith and reason.” Response from many Muslim countries was highly negative, and several international organizations, including the Organization of the Islamic Conference put forth a statement saying: “The OIC hopes that this sudden campaign does not reflect a new trend for the Vatican policy toward the Islamic religion […] and it expects the Vatican to express its real vision of Islam”, called it “character assassination of the Prophet Mohammed” and a “smear campaign.” In addition, religious leaders from other faiths including Christianity, Catholicism, and Judaism also contributed statements concerning the necessity religious understanding and tolerance.120 The then prime minister of Italy Romani Prodi issued a statement saying: “There cannot be any controversy… Religious dialogue and respect for every faith are essential today and religion does not justify any type of violence.”121

    On September 16, 2006, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, released a declaration from the Vatican explaining that:

    “The opinion of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus which he quoted during his Regensburg talk, the Holy Father did not mean, nor does he mean, to make that opinion his own in any way. He simply used it as a means to undertake – in an academic context, and as is evident from a complete and attentive reading of the text – certain reflections on the theme of the relationship between religion and violence in general, and to conclude with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come. [The Pope] sincerely regrets that certain passages of his address could have sounded offensive to the sensitivities of the Muslim faithful and should have been interpreted in a manner that in no way corresponds to his intentions. 122

    For many Muslims, this declaration was insufficient to rectify the situation and sensitive relations between Muslims and the Vatican. Grand Mufti Shaikh Abdul-Azeez ibn Abdullaah Aal ash-Shaikh, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, called the pope’s declaration “lies,” and added that they “show that reconciliation between religions is impossible.”123 However, the Muslim Council of Britain had a more favorable view of the declaration, issuing their own statement on that the Pope’s expression of “sincere regret” was “a good first step.”124

    On September 25, 2006 , Pope Benedict XVI held an audience with ambassadors of Muslim countries, Muslim diplomats, and members of the Consulta Islamica, the Italian government appointed consultative body on Islamic affairs. The meeting was an effort to mend relations with the Muslim community. During the session, Pope Benedict XVI reiterated his conviction that the dialogue between Muslims and Christians is “a vital necessity” for the good of a world marked by relativism, one that “excludes the transcendence and universality of reason.”125

    On the 12th of October, 38 Muslim scholars and clerics, including the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Russia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Oman, as well as clerics and academics from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, Europe and North America, published an Open Letter to the Pope. The signatories to the letter declared that they accepted the Pope’s “personal expression of sorrow and assurance that the controversial quote did not reflect his personal opinion.”126 In addition, the letter included a surprising answer to the original quote from Manuel II Paleologus, saying: “What the emperor failed to realize – aside from the fact… that no such command has ever existed in Islam – is that the Prophet never claimed to be bringing anything fundamentally new.”127

    One year after the release of the open letter to Pope Benedict XVI, a group of 138 Muslim scholars sent another open letter to the pontiff and other Christian leaders, entitled ‘A Common Word Between Us and You.’ The letter emphasized that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, share many identical values, including a living in peace with each other.128

    Christian clerics from Italy’s top Islamic Studies institute praised the letter sent to the Pope earlier this month, written and signed by 138 Muslim scholars. Citing its broad scope, intent to actively seek peace, and believability of intention, the Christian clerics have high hopes that the letter will heal some of the divide between Muslims and Christians.129

    Pope Benedict accepted the call by Muslim scholars and the letter’s signatories for dialogue between Christians and Islam, and invited them for meetings in Vatican City. “Without ignoring or downplaying our differences as Christians and Muslims, we can and therefore should look to what unites us, namely the belief in one God,” the Vatican wrote in a message signed by Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State.130

    The dates of November 4-6 have been set for an official dialogue between Catholic leaders and two dozen Muslim scholars and leaders to meet in Rome; Pope Benedict XVI will meet with the Muslim delegates on the last day of the meetings. According to a Vatican news release, the theme of the seminar will be ‘Love of God, Love of Neighbor.’ Several thematic issues will be discussed – Theological and Spiritual Foundations on the first day, Human Dignity and Mutual Respect on the second day. On the third and final day, a public session will be held.131


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