The number of Muslims has burgeoned in this Italian city, but plans to build a mosque have been contentious.
Hundreds of Muslims offered Friday prayers near Rome’s Colosseum to protest at the closure of mosques and other places of worship in Italy.
The prayer demonstration was staged over what they see as unfair restrictions on freedom to practise their faith in the country, according to organisers who called the protest following the recent closure of five makeshift mosques on administrative grounds.
Worshippers knelt on prayer mats and tarpaulins on the pavement metres away from the ancient amphitheatre. Some held placards reading “Peace” and “Open the mosques”.
Many Italian Muslims suspect local authorities are responding to a climate of mistrust caused by recent attacks in Europe by closing down the places of worship on the grounds of easily resolved problems, such as the number of toilets on a particular premises.
The protest was organised by a Bangladeshi group, Dhuumcatu, which has complained that Muslim places of worship in Rome have been branded illegal by authorities for various building violations.
The group wants City Hall to intervene.
“We feel people are pointing the finger at us,” said Francesco Tieri, a convert to Islam who acts as a coordinator for a number of Islamic groups.
“There is no political will to recognise that we are here and that we are a peaceful community. We are forced to rent places to pray – which for us is like breathing air. If we can’t do it, we die.”
Politician Barbara Saltamartini – of the anti-immigration Northern League party – called Friday’s demonstration “an unacceptable provocation” that should never have been allowed to take place in Rome.
Police confirmed the closure of some places of prayer. In a statement, police said authorities guarantee freedom of thought, but within a legal framework.
Islam not an official religion
In Italy, Islam is not recognised as an official religion, unlike Judaism or the Mormon faith, and many Muslims from North Africa and South Asia feel discriminated against on the grounds of both race and religion.
According to official figures, there are more than 800,000 Muslims living in Italy legally, and officials estimate another 100,000 live there permanently without official papers.
That would suggest that the Muslim community makes up more than 1.5 percent of the population and Islam is the second most-followed faith in the mostly Roman Catholic country.
Most prayers take place in houses and Islamic cultural centres – a development that some right-wing politicians have said makes them difficult to monitor, raising the risk of “radicalisation”.
Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said in August that “mini mosques in garages” should not be allowed.
Right-wing parties have called for a blanket ban on any mosques built with funds from donors outside of Italy.
Rome is home to the biggest mosque in the western world, but proposals to construct traditional-style mosques elsewhere have frequently run into opposition from local councils.