Freed Italian aid worker target of hate campaign after conversion

Aisha Romano, formerly known as Silvia, converted to Islam while held in captivity by al-Shabab in Somalia.

    Romano, kidnapped in Kenya 18 months ago, waved as she returned to Italy on Sunday [Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Handout/Reuters]
    Romano, kidnapped in Kenya 18 months ago, waved as she returned to Italy on Sunday [Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Handout/Reuters]

    An Italian aid worker has become the focus of a far-right hate campaign after returning home this weekend having been freed from 18 months of captivity by al-Shabab in Somalia.

    Silvia Romano converted to Islam while being held for ransom, with her family confirming the 24-year-old had changed her name to Aisha.

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    "Islamic and happy. Silvia the ungrateful," read the front-page headline of right-wing daily Il Giornale on Monday.

    A politician from the province of Treviso posted on Facebook that Romano should be hanged. The post was swiftly removed.

    Romano was working as a volunteer in an orphanage in a village in southeast Kenya when she was seized by gunmen in November 2018. She was smuggled across the border into Somalia, where she was believed to have been detained by the armed group al-Shabab that advocates a fringe interpretation of Islam.

    The group she was working with, Africa Milele, aims to provide food and clothing to children in Kenya. "Welcome back Silvia, we all have been waiting for you," said a statement on their website.

    Ransom

    Italy is predominantly Roman Catholic and the Church warmly welcomed Romano's safe return. "At this time, we all feel her to be our own daughter," said Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti.

    Italian media reported that Rome paid a ransom of some 1.5 million euros ($1.6m) to secure Romano's release. As always in such cases, the government declined to comment.

    "Imagine the Islamic terrorists: They have brought home the money, committing a criminal act, and 'won' the cultural battle in the name of the Islamic veil and conversion," said Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right opposition League party.

    Magistrates have opened an investigation into the abuse to see if charges of aggravated criminal threat can be laid against some of the senders, sources told Reuters.

    Newspapers quoted Romano as telling officials that she had chosen to become a Muslim of her own free will after reading the Quran, and had not been abused by her captors. 

    Alessandro Sallusti, head of the Il Giornale newspaper, which is owned by the brother of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, tweeted: "Silvia is back, and well. But it was like seeing a concentration camp prisoner proudly dressed as a Nazi. I don't understand, I will never understand." 

    In an interview with La Repubblica newspaper, a spokesman for al-Shabab, named as Ali Dehere, confirmed a ransom had been paid, but declined to say how much.

    "Some will be used to buy weapons, which we need more and more of to fight jihad (holy war). The rest will be used to run the country: to pay for schools, to buy the food and medicine we distribute to our people, to train the policemen who maintain order and enforce the laws of the Quran," he said.

    The spokesman said Romano had converted voluntarily "because she clearly saw with her own eyes a better world than she knew before".

    SOURCE: News agencies