Rome — An Italian bishop has clashed with a pair of priests who want to invite Muslims to pray inside their churches in a bid to promote tolerance in a diocese in Tuscany.
"The deserved, necessary and respectful welcome of people who practice other faiths and religions does not mean offering them space for prayers inside churches designed for liturgy and the gathering of Christian communities," Bishop Fausto Tardelli of Pistoia said in a statement reported on March 19.
"They can very well find other spaces and places," Tardelli said.
The bishop was responding to pledges by two local priests, Fr. Massimo Biancalani and Fr. Alessandro Carmignani, to welcome 18 Muslim refugees by giving them space to pray inside their churches.
But the two priests told Italian media they intend to defy the bishop and host the refugees in three parishes in the diocese, which is 25 miles northwest of Florence.
"What is the problem?" said Biancalani who runs the parish of Vicofaro. "If we want to give them a proper welcome and integration it makes no sense to make them pray in a cellar.
"Whoever wants to can pray inside the church, whoever does not want to can do it in another space. They don't need much; the important thing is that they can face Mecca."
The two priests contend they are responding to appeals by Pope Francis to help immigrants seeking support and they think praying together is a good way to enable their congregations to get to know the immigrants.
But the priests have drawn a bitter response from opponents and have even received menacing threats by telephone and on social media.
"Points of view can be discussed," Carmignani told the newspaper La Nazione. "But the verbal threats that have been used are unspeakable."
Francis has repeatedly urged the Catholic Church to do more to help the wave of refugees arriving in Europe from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.
On Sunday the pope criticized those who fail to "take responsibility" for immigrants.