By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Amid tensions generated by Europe’s rising Muslim presence, it’s increasingly common for the continent’s Christian roots to be invoked as a means of preventing its transformation into what critics deride as “Eurabia,” meaning an outpost of Islamic civilization.
In the Italian diocese of Padua, on the other land, local Catholic leaders are appealing to the same Christian identity to make a very different case – for welcoming the growing Muslim community, including defending its right to construct a mosque.
Padua is a city of 215,000, with a small but growing Muslim minority currently estimated at 6,000. Padua is located in the Veneto region of northern Italy, a political stronghold of the Northern League, a conservative party known for anti-immigration positions. In the recent Italian elections that returned a center-right coalition including the Northern League to power, the party garnered over 8 percent of the national vote – a historic high-water mark.
The current center-left administration in Padua has announced plans to make a piece of land and an unused building available to the Muslim community as a free loan, with the Muslims bearing the cost of converting the building to use as a mosque. Once those expenses have been absorbed, the Muslims would then begin paying rent to the city.
Local officials of the Northern League have denounced the plan as a “gift” to Muslim immigrants, and are collecting signatures on a petition calling for a referendum to block the proposed transfer.
In recent days, however, the leadership of the Catholic diocese in Padua has been outspoken in defending the planned mosque, and more broadly calling for a climate of welcome and respect for the city’s Muslim community.
Bishop Antonio Mattiazzo released a statment on Saturday, calling the construction of a mosque an occassion “to learn to live together, even with our differences.”
“It can favor a climate of concord,” Mattiazzo said.
The bishop added that public authorities in Padua can exercise oversight to ensure that the mosque does not become a center of anti-social activity.
“In order to overcome fear and allarism, it would not be harmful to religious freedom if the competent authorities ask for, and make public, guarantees about the activities, the financing and the leadership of these new centers of meeting and prayer.”
Fr. Cesare Contarini, editor of the diocesan newspaper, was even more outspoken in defense of the mosque in a recent editorial.
“As citizens, we can’t refuse a right recognized by our constitution; as Christians, we’re content whenever a man or a woman prays, all the more so when it’s to the one God, albeit known and adored in a very different way.”
Maurizio Conte, a local leader of the Northern League has publicly challenged the position of the diocese, arguing that if the church is favorable to the construction of a mosque, it ought to provide the property rather than the city. He added: “Even if the goods given to the adorers of Allah belonged to the church, I have the impression that many Catholics would have an objection.”
Contarini was blunt in his response.
“Conte is lying and he knows that he’s lying,” Contarini wrote. “It’s clear to everyone that the structure conceded by the mayor to the Muslims will be remodeled at their own expense, and once the costs have been amoritized, they’re the ones who will pay the rent. The point is something else: Does it really make sense to play with religion for political ends?”
Contarini’s reference was to the widely held belief that the Northern League is making an issue of the mosque partly with an eye to local elections in 2009, and its desire to unseat the current center-left administration in Padua.
The Padua diocese maintains a website devoted to Christian/Muslim relations, in Italian, which can be found here: Diocese of Padua, services for Christian-Muslim relations
The site carries a statement about the proposed mosque which begins, “Every society that calls itself civilized must recognize the religiosity of its citizens, because every person has the right to religious freedom.”
Overall, Italy is thought to have a Muslim minority of 1.2 million out of a total national population of 58.6 million. Europe as a whole is estimated to have roughly 15 million Muslims today, a total projected by various sources to rise to 40 million by mid-century, which would represent 15 percent of the total population.