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PALERMO, Sicily - In this very Catholic country, there have always been other religions: a sprinkling of Waldensian Protestants in the north, traces of Islam in Sicily, well-established but small Jewish neighborhoods in Rome, Venice, and other big cities. But for the first time in centuries, a minority religion is set to become a major player in Italy's future. Fueled largely by immigration from North Africa, the Middle East, and Albania, Islam is now the second-largest faith in what is still a nation that is 94 percent Catholic. Italy's demographic changes provide a modern challenge, not only for these two world religions, but also for this nation positioned at the crossroads of continents, faith, and history. With the growth has come some tension, most recently when some Catholic-Muslim marriages ended in widely reported battles over custody and religious education of the children. The Italian Bishops Council responded by issuing a public warning against marriages between the two religions, citing "too much distance in culture". But that reaction has drawn scorn from people like Amina Donatella Samina. Born in Rome, raised nominally Catholic, Samina has been a practicing Muslim since 1993, four years after marrying her Moroccan husband at city hall. "The church has a history of trying to destroy all that is different from it," said Samina, who wore a white and blue scarf on her head as she sipped a cappuccino at Rome's Caffe Doria.
Citing the eighth-century arrival of the first Muslims in Sicily, the mother of three said her newfound faith has only enhanced her connection to her native Mediterranean identity. "We're in the middle of everything here: Arab, Spanish, French, Slav. We need to overcome these narrow views so many have about who is Italian." A walk around Palermo offers support for her views. Several Catholic churches look suspiciously like mosques, having been transformed into churches when Christians retook Sicily in the year 991, after two centuries of Tunisian rule left a lasting Islamic stamp on the island. Over the past millennium, however, the religious life of Italy and its islands has been the domain of the Catholic Church. "For hundreds of years, Italy has been based around one dominant religion," said Maria Macioti, a sociology professor who has studied immigration in Italy for more than 20 years. "We're not very accustomed to having another significant religious presence here." There are now nearly 1 million Muslims in this country of 57 million. Though still smaller than the Islamic presence in other Western European countries, the number has doubled in just 10 years.
Twenty eight years ago, Rosario Pasquini (Danilo) was a heavy smoker, drank more whisky than was good for him and led what he now describes as a nightmare existence, tormented by the stress of having to succeed in his job as a lawyer in the busy northern city of Milan. Pasquini, born in Fiume in 1934, graduated from the University of Milan in 1957 and became a Muslim in 1974. Now in his 60s, Pasquini calls himself Abdurrahman. He leads the Friday Prayer at the Mosque of Il Misericordioso and is a teacher of Arabic and Islamic culture. He is also the author of L'Islam Credo, Pilastri, Vertice e Perfezione and Muhammad, L'Inviato di Dio.
Abdurrahman still lives in Milan, but he has traded his lawyer's briefcase for something that gives him more satisfaction. He is now editor of a newspaper called "Il Messagero del Islam", (The Messenger of Islam) an eight page tabloid written for the growing numbers of Italians who, like the former lawyer himself, decided to convert to the Muslim faith. "Every day, people come in wanting to know more about Islam and the conversion process," said Abdurrahman, who edits his newspaper from an office at Milan's Islamic Center. "Yesterday it was one, today there were two. They come from all over, from different classes and backgrounds, and they all have different reasons for doing it." Abdurrahman himself received support and understanding from his own family. He says, "They took the view that I was old enough to make my mind up for myself, and let me get on with it. In fact, my mother, who is 93 years old and has remained a Catholic, recently said to me: 'I Praise Allah, because if you had continued to live the way you did before you converted, you would be dead by now.'"
He continues, "At the time I was prey to a terrible mental stress, brought on by the competitiveness that is so prevalent in our type of society. After a long period of searching, I finally arrived at Islam which says that no one except God has the right to judge and dominate other men. This is what I was looking for. For me it represented a liberation from a society which believes itself to be free, but which instead forces its members to bow under the yoke of many, many different demands."
Like many converts, Abdurrahman embraced his new faith whole heartily. He learned Arabic so he could read the Quran and participate in mosque life without having to rely on translations. His command of the language has become so good that he now teaches it. The former lawyer's interpretation of the Muslim faith is strict and unyielding. As well as announcements of births, marriages and conversions, his Muslim newspaper carries advice on how Italian converts should behave.
One of the factors that contributed to his conversion was a meeting that developed into a strong friendship with Jordanian born, Ali Abu Shwaima, then a medical student, now the director of the Milan Islamic Center. Shwaima's wife is also Italian. Like Pasquini, she decided to convert to Islam and changed her name from Paola Moretti to Khadija, after the Prophet Muhammad's (SAW) first wife. Today, she recalls with some amusement the first time she ventured out into the streets wearing a veil. That was 28 years ago, when Italians were far less used to seeing Muslims than they are now. "I felt everyone's eyes on me. It was rather embarrassing," she said. "I could hear the other women in the supermarket whispering things like, 'who is she, a nun?' Or 'Maybe she belongs to some sect.' But that kind of attitude no longer bothers me, she said. I'm sure of the choice I made. It certainly wasn't easy at the beginning, when I made my conversion. But wearing the veil is a duty for women. I couldn't accept one part of the Quran and not the other."
Guiuseppina, now known as Fatima, was a Roman Catholic nun, studying theology and living in a convent in Modena in central Italy. She began reading the Quran, and as her interest grew she started having doubts about her own religion and vocation. She took to visiting the Islamic Center in Milan, and finally after a great deal of soul searching, she renounced her vows and converted to Islam. Today, she is married to a fellow Muslim.
Daniela was born in Sicily and became a convert nine years ago, when she married an Egyptian. She willingly obeys all the rules of her new faith. "When I go out, I always wear a scarf over my head and I keep my legs and arms covered," she said. "A woman should keep all parts of feminine beauty covered, because only her husband has the right to see them. It seems perfectly right to me." In spite of her acceptance of what other Western Women might see as limitations, Daniela claims her relationship with her husband is one of absolute equality.
Franco Leccesi, who prefers to be known as Omar, claims the precise rules laid down by Islam help a person gain greater self discipline, which in turn leads to physical and spiritual improvement. Looking back to the old days before he converted seven years ago, he said: "I always used to try to impose my own self discipline, but it never lasted very long," added the 42 year Neapolitan artist, "but in the past six years I've noticed a dramatic improvement in myself. If you pray five times a day it also forces you to break off from the daily treadmill. It makes you stop and reflect and prevents you from becoming an automation, who lives his life mechanically. One thing that strikes me very deeply is the dramatic difference between old people in many Muslim countries, and those in the West." he added. "There, the elderly are often far more lucid and energetic, right up until old age, they often have remarkable physical and mental powers in comparison with people of the same age over here. It's largely due to the lifestyle they learn from childhood, which enables them to eliminate stress and to do without the kind of things that poison our systems. We westerns have lost so much of the spiritual dimension of our lives. It's as though we've fallen into a deep sleep. We're living in a world that is so empty- it's very frightening to contemplate."
Like most Italians, Leccesi was brought up a Roman Catholic, but for years he felt that something was missing from his life. He says, "When I read the Bible, I totally agreed with everything it said, but I saw that practice was very different from the theory. People didn't behave in a way that did (the bible) justice", he said. A series of visits to the Naples mosques, together with the Italian friend who had already converted to the Islamic faith, convinced Leccesi that becoming a Muslim would give him what he defines as "the something extra" that he was looking for.
His friends were skeptical at first. "It was quite hard at the beginning. People were upset because it seemed such a strange thing to do. To them, it was a step into the unknown. Some of my more intelligent friends looked at me with a sort of admiration, even though they still thought I was a bit crazy," said Leccesi. His wife found the decision hard to accept at first. For a start, she had to get used to calling the man she married as Franco by his new name of Omar. "Now, she sometimes calls me Franco and sometimes Omar, though I really don't mind which," said Leccesi. "You can't force people to believe the things you do, and I've never tried with her, but even she is showing more interest than she once did. You could now describe her as a sympathizer."
More to the point, Muslims account for 36.5 percent of the 1.5 million immigrants in Italy and Islam has overtaken Catholicism, at 27.4 percent, as the largest religious group among newcomers. Perhaps here more than elsewhere, the crossover questions of immigration and religion are vexing a nation where St. Peter's Basilica and Europe's largest mosque are just a city bus ride apart.
Magdi Allam, who covers immigration and Muslim issues for the newspaper La Repubblica, said Italy has a wide mix of Muslims that mirrors the diversity of the faith around the world: There are some 10,000 Italian-born converts, a largely moderate flock from Morocco, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and vast numbers of arrivals from Albania. The Muslim community has not received official government recognition - bestowed on an array of smaller faiths, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and Buddhists - that would guarantee state-approved religious education, finance mosques and associations, and legalize Muslim marriage rites.
The government grants official recognition to other religions under a 1984 modification of the Concordat, an agreement between the Italian state and the Vatican signed in 1929 to give special status to Roman Catholicism. Native-born converts, the foreign embassies of Morocco and Saudi Arabia - whose royal family largely financed the building of the mammoth mosque in Rome - and other Muslim groups have been bickering for more than two years over who will negotiate the terms of the agreement. Once these differences are resolved, the Italian brand of Islam can play a major role in the religion's future across the globe, said Hamza Roberto Piccardo, who has been a Muslim since 1984. "In no country in Europe has there been such a rapid growth," said Piccardo, adding that the number of mosques and Islamic cultural centers has gone from 12 to 400 in the past 16 years. "Italy is the bridge between Africa, the Middle East, and Europe that make for a particular kind of Islam here." But as the presence expands, so does the possibility for conflict. Piccardo said "Islamaphobia" is part of a Western penchant to find new enemies in the post-Cold War world. But Piccardo concedes that Italy's history raises the stakes. "The idea of Christianity is dominant here," said Piccardo, who concurs with the church's effort to dissuade intermarriage. "We are a family: Jews, Christians and Muslims; the problems within a family are always more difficult."
"There is a lot of misunderstanding about Islam. It is a deeply reflective, peaceful, a very beautiful religious faith," stated British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an interview with The Muslim News, a United Kingdom based newspaper. The Prime Minister stated that he "owns two copies of the Quran and carries one with him whenever he can," a habit he picked up from Chelsea Clinton. He also expressed his respect for Islam by saying that he "draws inspiration from it. If you read the Qur'an, it is so clear, the concept of love and fellowship as the guiding spirits of humanity."
The public statements made by the Prime Minister illustrating his appreciation of Islam, and his call for the necessity of Britain to " reach out and build greater understanding of what Islam is and means and the values that underpin it," are an illustration of the growing recognition of Islam. Mr. Blair also predicted that there would be more Muslim Members of Parliament in the next election.
In fact he said that he would be, "very surprised if the Labour Party didn't have any Muslim candidates standing in winnable seats in the next election."
This interview with The Muslim News and Mr. Blair's words of praise came after Britain sent the first ever official, British Hajj Delegation to offer consular assistance to British pilgrims. Lord Ahmed of Rotherham, who was nominated by Blair and became the first ever Muslim in the House of Lords, headed the Hajj Delegation. "The acknowledgment by the British government of its Muslim citizens is greatly appreciated and respected by the American Muslim community. We look for the increased inclusion of Muslims in public affairs and a more proactive role in society," states Aly Abuzaakouk, Executive Director of the American Muslim Council.
Ayodhya, India - Shive Prasad is a resident of Faisabad, where Ayodhya is situated. He was given the responsibility to guide four thousand Kar Sevak in the demolition of the Babri mosque.
It was he who trained four thousand people on how to carry out the demolition. His whole family was actively involved in demolishing the Babri Masjid. Soon after the demolition of the mosque, Shive Prasad felt a depression in his heart. He had no peace of mind. He felt that he had committed a great sin. This event took place eight years ago. On Dec. 6, 1999 the same Shive Prasad was seeking forgiveness from Allah for his cruel act seven years back.
He was fasting (non-obligatory) and regretting the act with tears and was seeking forgiveness from Allah in his prayers. Yes! Shive Prasad has embraced Islam. He has changed his name to Mohammed Mustafa. In 1997, he went to the city of Sharjah in order to seek employment. But even at work his mind was restless. On Dec. 4, 1998 as he was walking along the streets of Sharjah, he happened to hear a speech in Hindi before the Friday prayer held in a mosque. When he heard the speech, he felt something was different. He wanted to listen to the complete speech. The message about Allah created a revolution in his mind. He continued to listen to such speeches thereafter. The revolution in his heart was completed. (All praise be to God!)
He has forfeited the ignorance and chosen the righteous path. When Shive Prasad embraced Islam, he was driven out by his upset family members. Now, he is praying to God that his family member will choose the righteous path as he did.
Mohammed Mustafa has received continuous threats to be killed if he returns to India. But Mohammed Mustafa says firmly that he will never turn away from Islam- the righteous path even if death comes his way. Having learnt 17 Surahs in the Holy Qur'an, he is anxious to complete the learning of the entire Quran.
Mustafa's ambition is to become a true Islamic preacher and bring more people to Islam. If Allah wishes, Mustafa's ambition will be fulfilled. The very same hands which demolished the Babri Masjid will build it up again, InshAllah.
The Islamic Bulletin
P.O. Box 410186, San Francisco, CA 94141-0186
|Note from the Editor|
|Letters to the Editor|
|Islam Makes Inroads in Italy|
|Britain's Prime Minister Praises Islam|
|Barbri Demolisher Accepts Islam|
|The Most Beautiful Names of Allah|
|Death is Coming|
|Al-Banna's Letter to a Muslim Student|
|Women in Islam|
|How I Embraced Islam|
|The Qur'an & Science|
|Benefits of Sujud|
|The Origin of Arabic Numerals|
|Stories of the Sahabah|
|Sayings of the Prophet|
|The Miracle of Honey|
|This is Islam|
|Everybody - Nobody|