The pope’s visit to Lesbos and the invitation to the Great Mosque in Rome

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is to visit Lesbos on 16 April in a gesture of solidarity towards asylum seekers and refugees there.

The announcement came just two days after initial reports of a possible trip to the Greek island which, like Italy’s Lampedusa, finds itself on the front line in efforts to handle the huge influx of men, women and children from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking international protection in Europe.

The joint visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I would appear to have been organised in record time.

It is fantastic that Pope Francis is putting such effort into highlighting the terrible plight of migrants and refugees.

His first official visit as pope in 2013 was precisely to the tiny island of Lampedusa that is closer to North Africa than it is to mainland Sicily, and which has seen a staggering 400,000 migrants pass through its ‘doors’ in the last 20 years.

Last September, after European consciences were stirred briefly by the harrowing photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a Turkish beach, Francis invited all Catholic parishes to take in refugees.

Most recently, he chose to hold the Holy Thursday feet-washing rite at a reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA) in Castelnuovo di Porto, just down the road from Monterotondo.

However, as I read the news of the upcoming Lesbos visit I found myself wondering why the pope couldn’t put the same zeal into arranging an equally important and long-awaited visit to the Great Mosque in Rome.

He received a formal invitation from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which houses Europe’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Muslim house of prayer, on 20 January.

The invitation came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, even though both sides were said to have been working on the visit for around ten months.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at the time that the invitation had been accepted ”with gratitude and it will be considered. The Pope will see what to do.”

He also urged caution in speculation about a date, though qualified sources told ANSA that the parties were “working towards 10 April”, a Sunday.

Since then, with the exception of a couple of reports that Francis will visit the mosque “shortly”, there has been total silence.

This is a shame considering that Europe’s refugee crisis and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are in many respects two sides of the same coin, and also that the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe right now are Muslim.


Una scialuppa in mezzo al mare, ovvero l’accoglienza dei profughi a Monterotondo

IMG_0682So che il Natale è finito da un pezzo, ma nella chiesa di Gesu Operaio a Monterotondo è rimasto un presepe che ho scoperto solo oggi, e che desidero condividere con i miei lettori.

L’allestimento progettato e realizzato da Franco Iannelli s’incentra sul tema dell’accoglienza dei profughi in arrivo dal mare.

Invece della tradizionale capanna, la sacra famiglia è sistemata in una scialuppa in mezzo al mare, con Giuseppe che tende la mano verso due profughi aggrappati al bordo. Uno di loro tiene in braccio un bambino in fasce che allunga verso la barca, per metterlo in salvo. Sullo sfondo, ‘l’isola della speranza’, un paesaggio povero ma lindo, con le case illuminate da dentro e le porte spalancate e con le persone che sono in attesa di ricevere i nuovi arrivati.

E noi?


La Repubblica on refugee reception by parishes and the difficulties faced by Muslims in explaining Islam

Two articles in today’s La Repubblica newspaper caught my eye.

One was an article by Jenner Meletti on the number of parishes across Italy that have responded to Pope Francis’s September call to open their doors to refugees. The answer is: painfully few. The reason may also have to do with legal and bureaucratic constraints – to the best of my knowledge the church is being involved in the primary reception (accoglienza primaria) of people whose immigration status is as yet uncertain – but it nonetheless remains a sad testament to the difficulty of showing concrete solidarity even in the face of such urgent need.

(For the record I have myself enquired about the possibility of hosting refugees in my own home and I have been told that families can only accommodate people once their application for international protection has been processed; offers of accommodation should be made to and are handled by the diocesan Caritas).

The other article was a frank and thought-provoking comment by the writer Mohammed Hanif that first appeared in the New York Times about the difficulties faced by so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in explaining Islam following atrocities such as the November terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris. It is a must-read.

The feel in Rome on the eve of the Jubilee of Mercy

This weekend I did something I haven’t done for a shamefully long time: I walked and then drove through the streets of Rome.

I wanted to gauge for myself the feel in the city on the eve of Pope Francis’ special Jubilee of Mercy, which begins with the opening of the Holy Door at St Peter’s basilica on Tuesday.

Security plans have been ratcheted up in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris and so I was not surprised to find a heavy security presence with large numbers of police and military personnel at so-called sensitive sites: at the entrance to St Peter’s Square, outside the basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, outside Termini station (where a large group of carabinieri police were chatting idly amongst themselves), at the church of S. Luigi dei Francesi (the so-called ‘French church’), to name a few.

Two heavily armed soldiers outside the Supreme Court of Cassation prompted some difficult questions from my daughter (it is not easy to explain to a five-year-old that we live in a world where people with guns are supposedly needed to keep us safe from people with guns).

However, away from the main tourist and pilgrim areas it seemed to be business as usual; if anything, the apparent concentration of security forces at specific sites in and around the city centre left other areas feeling abandoned to themselves and more vulnerable.

I had heard from various sources that Rome was empty and indeed on Saturday morning it did feel that way: the road running along the south bank of the Tiber from the Olympic stadium to Trastevere was empty of both traffic and parked cars.

However by lunchtime central areas were beginning to fill up, mostly with Italian and foreign tourists (many Romans will have taken advantage of the long holiday weekend – which for many in fact began on Friday due to a combined public transport strike and ban on circulation for cars with odd-numbered licence plates – to get out of town or rest up at home), and by mid-afternoon the Vatican area was busy (not teeming) with visitors; the queue to enter St Peter’s ran the whole way round Bernini’s colonnade as far as the junction with Via della Conciliazione.

The general impression was that, after a brief period in which fear of terrorism effectively stopped many Romans from going out and kept some would-be visitors away, things are now returning to normal; that, over and above the heightened security, most people probably now consider a terrorist attack to be only a remote possibility and certainly not one that is going to get in the way of daily life.

I suspect that for many Rome residents the general disorderliness and lack of decorum, the dirt, the holes (and sometimes even genuine chasms) in the road, the ubiquitous micro-road works that cause terrible snarl-ups at rush hour and the shocking level of poverty that I noticed on my rounds are of much more immediate concern.


Islam in Italy: a profile

There has been much talk in the media about ‘Italy’s Islamic community’ in recent weeks, but the label is rarely accompanied by facts and figures that give a clear idea of how this community is made up.

How many Muslims are there in Italy and where are they from? What denomination of Islam do they follow? What is the balance of men to women and where in Italy do they live? How many are native Italians who have converted to Islam? Where do they worship and how are the places of worship regulated (assuming they are)?

I put some of these questions to the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (U.CO.I.I.) and the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, two of the most representative bodies in Italy, and got no reply.

So this is what I have managed to piece together based on December 2014 estimates reported by Corriere della Sera and Repubblica newspapers on 27 November based on an internal interior ministry report.

If other information becomes available from the Islamic community directly I will of course make it known to readers as soon as possible. I would also be grateful for any additional details you can provide.

There are reportedly just over 1.6 million Muslims in Italy, or 2.6% of the total population (60.7 million). The number has fallen by about 40,000 over the previous year as a result of the economic crisis. Muslims account for just under a third of immigrants in Italy. However, in 2013 42% of children born of foreign parents were Muslim, suggesting that the Muslim community is growing faster than other foreign communities.

Some 98% of Muslims in Italy are Sunni and half come from North Africa (particularly Morocco). Other significant communities come from Albania and Bangladesh.

58% of Muslims in Italy are male and arrived in their youth to look for work.

The number of Italian converts to Islam is estimated at 70,000. To this figure must be added a similar number of Muslim immigrants who have obtained Italian citizenship.

Generally speaking Muslims are concentrated in the north west (39% of the total) and north east (27%). Some 26.5% of the Muslim population lives in Lombardy, putting the region in top place followed by Emilia Romagna (13.5%), Veneto and Piemonte (9%). On a provincial level Milan, Rome, Brescia, Bergamo and Turin have the largest number of Muslim residents. In Milan 45,000 of the province’s roughly 120,000 Muslims are Egyptian. In Rome 32,000 of the approximately 90,000 Muslims are from Bangladesh. In Turin 27,000 of the roughly 54,000 Muslims are Moroccan.

There are four purpose-built mosques in Italy, in Rome, Segrate (Milan), Ravenna and Colle Val d’Elsa (Florence). In addition, there are a handful of official mosques in converted buildings in other cities such as Catania, Palermo and Lecce

In addition there are thought to be over 700 informal places of worship known as ‘Islamic centres’ in premises originally built for other purposes. These include the so-called ‘garage mosques’, “independent Islamic centers without a link to any national network” that are of concern to interior ministry officials because of the difficulty of monitoring activities there. Communication is informal, internet-based and exclusively in Arabic. These centers “represent a grey area, certainly traditionalist and of fundamentalist inspiration, but without this necessarily always meaning the adoption of jihadism,” according to the interior ministry report. A recent study reportedly counted nearly 30 in the capital alone.