COLLE DI VAL D'ELSA, Italy — For hundreds of years, Colle di Val d’Elsa has been renowned for its crystal and as the birthplace of medieval sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio. But, the picturesque Tuscan town, situated on the road between Florence and Siena, may soon be better known as home to one of Italy’s largest mosques. That is, if it’s ever built.
The controversy over the planned construction has been brewing for seven years and has split the local community. The outcome here could set the tone for Muslim endeavors and integration across Italy.
“Those of us who live here are really afraid,” said Lucia Prizzi, who lives in an apartment beside the field and vineyards where the mosque will be built.
“It’s not right that the local government gave them this land without consulting us first,” she said.
Her sentiments are echoed on graffiti along a nearby wall: “No Mosque,” “Christian Hill,” and “Thanks to the communists the Arabs are in our house!!!” Another calls on the mayor, who supports the mosque’s construction, to build it at his house.
From emigrant to immigrant nation
Once a nation of emigrants, Italy has only had a sizeable immigrant population for around 15 years, and is still adjusting to the changing circumstances. Yet, in many areas someone from an adjacent town can still be seen as a “foreigner” — as they have a different dialect, cuisine, and patron saint — let alone someone from across the Mediterranean Sea who practices a different religion.
With one of the European Union’s highest unemployment rates, wages at a near standstill and prices shooting higher along with the euro currency, many Italians see little room for immigrant labor. And since the rise of international terrorism, the growing Muslim community — now at around 1 million, or 2 percent of the population — is being eyed with even greater scrutiny than other immigrant groups.
After the July 2005 London transport bombings, dozens of suspected Islamic extremists were deported from the country. And in April, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government said it thwarted planned attacks by such extremists on Milan’s subway system and on Bologna’s cathedral, which houses a painting that depicts the Muslim prophet Mohammed in a Dantesque hell.
Feeding on the country’s fears, the political party La Lega Nord — or the Northern League — switched its platform of separation from southern Italy to kicking out all foreigners, but most notably Muslims.
Meantime, although there are more than 500 Islamic centers of varying sizes across the country, Italy does not recognize Islam as an official religion.
This charged atmosphere has affected life in Colle di Val d’Elsa, where the Muslim community and the mayor have been working to build a new, larger, Islamic center to accommodate the town’s growing number of Muslims and to promote cultural exchange.
‘A place to exchange cultural knowledge’
The historic center of Colle di Val d’Elsa — which means “hills of the valley of the river Elsa” — rests on a verdant hill, looking over the businesses hub where medieval facades stand alongside modern buildings.
On a recent Friday, the fruit and vegetable market was winding down in Piazza Scala, in the center of the lower town, as the muezzin’s call to prayer rang out from the current Islamic center, a former bakery with an entrance along the piazza.
As the imam lead the prayer, the small room filled with up to a hundred people. Men stood hip-to-hip, wall-to-wall, bumping each other as they bent over in prayer. On the other side of a cloth partition, women sat cross-legged, knee-to-knee, with children clambering on top of them and vying for room.
“As you can see, we need a bigger space,” said Imam Feras Jebareen, adding that “on religious holidays we are forced to rent another hall that can hold more people.”
“The idea came about to create a center that would not only be an area to pray but a place to exchange cultural knowledge and assist integration,” he said.
Plans were put forth, and in 1999 the town’s previous mayor, Marco Spinelli, approved construction of an Islamic cultural center in the Badia quarter’s San Lazzaro park on the edge of town.
The center would comprise a mosque with a dome and minaret, made from local crystal and covering 600 square yards, as well as a library, open air-courtyard, playground with basketball hoops, and parking lot. Pedestrian and cycling paths would link the center with the town’s sporting grounds.
“It’s not really a mosque, but an open structure for cultural activities as well as Islamic prayer,” said the current mayor, Paolo Brogioni.
Construction costs would be paid for by a donation from Monte dei Paschi bank’s cultural fund and the Muslim community, with the local council paying a small fee to the architect who drew up the plans.
Jebareen, the imam, said each working Muslim in Colle di Val d’Elsa was asked to give 500 euros, and that no outside country had sponsored it.
“We want it to be an Italian mosque, for Italian Muslims, that represents an Italian Islam,” he said.
Both mayor and imam said that the Muslim community was integrating well and that there had never been problems with the current Islamic center.
Opposition to the new construction therefore took both parties by surprise.
“Clown!” and “Shame on you!” the people shouted as the mayor left the legislative palace on a recent evening. The town council had just voted down the Badia residents’ petition to hold a referendum on the mosque’s construction and a few dozen protesters waited around with an “anti-democratic” banner and rice to pelt at the mayor.
Several groups have popped up in opposition to the mosque, including “Insieme per Colle” – or “Together for the town of Colle” – which promoted the referendum, and the Civic List political party.
While the Northern League opposes all mosques, saying they are political institutions where “terrorists work to create a state within the state,” these groups say they only oppose construction on the specified plot of land in the Badia quarter.
“We are not against integration or the Islamic community,” said Letizia Franceschetti, president of the committee that proposed the referendum on the center’s construction, stating that Badia residents don’t want to lose the grassy parkland, vineyards, and views of Chianti’s hills in the distance.
However, Brogioni, the mayor, accused the group of “hiding behind the arguments of the park and environment.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Brogioni, “is that I would like to discuss the activity of the center, not the place where it will be constructed, because if the people of that area don’t like the activities of the center, then it won’t go over well in any other part of town.”
The mayor said that although the community was informed of the construction in 1999, there was no opposition to the plan until after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. But, the protesters outside the legislative palace were quick to tell reporters that the “mosque bomb” was not dropped until a later date, and that their opposition was not related to a fear of Islam.
Amidst the bitter counterclaims, anxiety over the unknown is apparent.
One woman spoke of seeing Muslim youths train for jihad on television, and a man said that the only reason a park was being built alongside the mosque was to accommodate all the Muslim children.
“Well, when you have multiple wives, what do you expect,” he said, asking that his name not be used with that comment.
Many feared that due to the size of the mosque, Muslims from across Tuscany would flock to Colle di Val d’Elsa for Friday services and camp out during Muslim holidays, making the area a no-go zone for them.
“Why put an Islamic Vatican here on our terrace?” asked Viviana Mastacchi. “Imagine how it’ll be during Ramadan, imagine all the confusion,” the 39-year-old waitress said.
Meantime, others feared that their apartments would depreciate in value, and there was confusion over who was funding the construction costs.
"Our houses won't be worth anything," said Mastacchi.
"There's an Italian saying," said Gabrielle Antonio, "If I don't have shoes for myself, how can I give you a pair?"
"If they ask the council for money and I don't even have a house, how can we give them money for a mosque?" the 60-year-old asked.
“I think that the people here are really afraid, whether their fears are right or wrong, either way it’s only human to be afraid if you’re on a bus or on a subway you’ll look around to see if there are any Muslims around you,” Franceschetti, the lawyer, said.
To combat such fears, imam Jebareen, a Palestinian physiotherapist who has lived in Italy for more than 10 years, has promoted a pact against terrorism as well as an annual interfaith forum, and has signed a contract with the local government, stating that the new Islamic center’s existence is contingent on the Muslim community not taking part directly, or indirectly in illegal activities involving the center.
Speaking of the contract, Franceshetti said: “The Muslim community is going to have to guarantee and verify that those who enter the Islamic center are good people, which is absurd because no city, not even New York or London could confront this problem. Even they found themselves helpless in the face of grave attacks.”
‘A big moment’
The mayor remained confident that non-Muslims would frequent the center and that both groups would benefit from learning about each other, but many were skeptical.
“I’m a Catholic, why would I go there?’ asked retiree Folto Massaini.
Muslim Sinam Sharki, 19, also questioned why non-Muslims would frequent the center when “it’s really a place for prayer.”
Sharki, a Moroccan who came to Italy when she was 13, said she had non-Muslim Italian friends at school but did not see them outside of class.
“It’s not that I don’t like them; they are just very different from us; they go to discos, they eat out at restaurants, and we don’t,” she said.
Brogioni insisted that it was this divide that made the center, and it’s location within the town, essential to integration.
“The error often made in cases like this is to isolate them, to have them not be seen and not want to be seen,” he said.
“In reality, to be seen, and to want to be seen, is a big moment.”
The Muslim community has won full permission to begin construction of the Islamic Cultural Center, but the opposition has also vowed to continue its legal battle against it.
As growing Muslims communities across Italy plan to construct larger and more elaborate Islamic centers, Colle di Val d’Elsa’s experiences may foreshadow the ups and downs of integration and religious conflict to come.