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No place to pray for Muslim workers in Italian city

By AFP

May 8, 2024 08:17 AM


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It's Friday prayers in the northeastern Italian city of Monfalcone, and hundreds of men are on their knees in a concrete parking lot, their heads bowed to the ground.

They are just a fraction of the city's Muslims who since November have been banned from praying inside their two cultural centres by Monfalcone's far-right mayor.

Instead, they assemble in this privately owned construction site as they await a court decision later this month to settle a zoning issue they say has barred their constitutional right to prayer.

Among them is Rejaul Haq, the property's owner, who expresses frustration over what he and many other Muslims see as harassment by the city they call home.

"Tell me where I should go? Why do I have to go outside of Monfalcone? I live here, I pay taxes here!" lamented Haq, a naturalised Italian citizen who arrived from Bangladesh in 2006.

"Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, Jehovah's, if they all have their church -- why can't we have one?"

 

- 'Too many' -

 

Immigrants make up a third of this city of 30,000 inhabitants outside Trieste, most of them Bangladeshi Muslims who began arriving in the late 1990s to build cruise-liners for ship builder Fincantieri, whose Monfalcone shipyard is Italy's largest.

Their presence is immediately visible, whether the Bangladeshi men on bicycles peddling to and from work or the ethnic grocery stores on street corners.

For Mayor Anna Cisint, the restriction on prayer is about zoning, not discrimination.

Urban planning regulations tightly limit the establishment of places of worship, and as a mayor in a secular state, she says it is not her job to provide them.

"As a mayor, I'm not against anybody, I wouldn't even waste my time being against anybody, you see, but I'm also here to enforce the law," Cisint told AFP.

Still, she argues the number of Muslim immigrants, boosted by family reunifications and new births, has become "too many for Monfalcone".

"There are too many... you have to tell it like it is," she said.

Her warnings about the "social unsustainability" of Monfalcone's Muslim population have propelled Cisint to national headlines in recent months.

They have also assured her a spot in upcoming European Parliament elections for Matteo Salvini's anti-immigrant League party, part of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's coalition government.

The League for decades has obstructed mosque openings in its stronghold of northern Italy. But the problem is nationwide in Catholic-majority Italy.

Islam is not among the 13 religions that have official status under Italian law, which complicates efforts to build places of worship.

There are currently fewer than 10 officially recognised mosques, said Yahya Zanolo of the Italian Islamic Religious Community (COREIS), one of the country's main Muslim associations.

That means that out of Italy's estimated more than two million Muslims, most are relegated to thousands of makeshift places of worship that "feed prejudice and fear in the non-Muslim population", said Zanolo.

Cisint, who has been under police protection since receiving online death threats in December, complains about a resistance to integration by what she called a "very closed" community.

She asks why Arabic and not Italian is taught in the community centres and calls "intolerable" wives walking behind husbands or schoolgirls in veils.

 

- Future of Europe? -

 

In the run-up to European elections, the League has once again seized on illegal immigration to Italy -- where nearly 160,000 migrants arrived by boat last year, mostly from Muslim countries -- as a vote-winner.

Salvini has called the June vote "a referendum on the future of Europe," to decide "whether Europe will still exist or whether it will be a Sino-Islamic colony".

But Monfalcone's Muslims don't fit the stereotypes exploited by the League, armed as they are with work permits or passports.

"It's not like we came here to see the beautiful city of Monfalcone," jokes Haq. "It's because there's work here."

Many Muslims told AFP they feel a palpable sense of distrust, if not outright hatred, from some of the long-time residents.

Ahmed Raju, 38, who works at Fincantieri installing panels, has mostly prayed at home since the cultural centres have been off-limits.

Such is the reach of the mayor's rhetoric that "even I get scared" about Muslims, Raju said.

Of the prejudice the community faces, Raju added: "You feel like you're in front of a big wall, that you can't break down."

"We're foreigners. We can't change the situation."

Outside a classroom where volunteers teach Italian to recently immigrated women, Sharmin Islam, 32, said the animosity is acutely felt by her young son who was born in Italy.

"He comes back from school and asks, 'Mum, are we Muslims bad?'"

 

- 'Enough already' -

 

An administrative court in Trieste will rule on May 23 whether to uphold or strike down the mayor's ban on prayer within the cultural centres.

Haq says Monfalcone's Muslims have "no Plan B" if they lose, but worries even if they win the scars from the stand-off will remain.

Meanwhile Cisint has been actively promoting her book, "Enough Already: Immigration, Islamisation, Submission", warning Monfalcone's situation could be duplicated elsewhere.

On a recent public holiday, Bangladeshis filled the city's main square, from little girls with unicorn balloons to groups of young men enjoying a day off.

Looking on was barman Gennaro Pomatico, 24.

"The locals won't ever accept them," said Pomatico.

"But ultimately they don't bother anyone."


AFP


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