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Public funding for new mosque splits Naples

Public funding for new mosque splits Naples

Author: Daniel Williams
Publication: International Herald Tribune, UK
Date: May 13, 2002

Naples: The ponticelli district of western Naples looks like a piece of Italy that time, and the country's striking economic progress, forgot.

Winding streets and a crumbling old church seem cast from Italy's impoverished past. Street markets overflow with shiny fresh squid and giant artichokes; the stalls look like 19th-century still lifes. Old ladies wear black as if in perpetual mourning and wrinkled men play cards lazily outside of storefronts. Watch out for pickpockets, by the way.

Yet for all Ponticelli's anachronistic feel, the district has been at the cutting and social changes wrought by Italy's unending wave of immigrant. It is a debate that is raging across Europe, highlighted by the effort of the anti-immigrant politician Jean-Marie Le Pen in France to unseat President Jacques Chirac.

The ponticelli controversy centers on the regional government's plans to build a $2 million mosque for Naples's burgeoning population of Muslims from North Africa and Albania.

On one level, the debate focuses on a Europeanwide fear that immigrant are imposing their culture on the continent, sapping public resources and causing an increase in crime. Italy's right-learning government is pressing for laws to jail some illegal immigrants for up to a year, send naval boats to patrol the long coastline and allow the destruction of ships that smuggle immigrants.

But the Ponticelli mosque story is as much a tale about the peculiarities of Italian politics and the character of this chaotic southern port as about immigration. While the right in other parts of Europe seems to be feeding on the immigration controversy, the right in Italy is divided on how to treat the mosque case.

Naples defies the belief that poverty equals anti-immigrant sentiment. Though it is the poorest of Italy's big cities, Naples is known for openness to outsiders, in contrast to wealthier towns in northern Italy where anti-foreign feeling run deep. As a result, proponents and opponents of the mosque tread warily. Naples's self-image is at stake.

"Naples is a Mediterranean city and has always interacted with its neighbors on the other shores," said Bishop Antonio Riboldi, who opposes public funding for the mosque. "So we are more welcoming. We want to be clear that criticism does not undo centuries of getting along."

Naples, said Hamza Massimiliano Bocclini, an Italian Muslim and Chief promoter of the mosque project, "is accustomed to diversity, and we want to keep that."

Regional planners endorsed about $2 million in funding for the mosque more than a year ago. There was no public outcry. Aftyer all, the pope had approved construction of a mosque in Rome six years earlier.

But that was before immigration became a burning issue-and before Sept. 11. Naples, like other parts of Italy, identified with the fears of New York and Washington and began to suspect segments of its Muslim population of having fundamentalist leaning.

Some xenophobia surfaced nationwide. "Anger and Pride," A book by the journalist Oriana Fallacci, Lauded Italian patriotism and praised Italian cathedral architecture and Dante's poetry at the expense of mosques and the Persian poet Omar Khayam. Italians bought a million copies in five months-an unheard-of runway best sellers. The rights Northern League, a minor participant in Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi's governing coalition, began to amplify its drumbeat of anti-immigration rhetoric.

In December, Northern League members mosques. A few members of the National Alliance, a larger party in Berlusconi's coalition government, joined them. One politician suggested that the mayor of Naples, Rosa Russo Jervolino, don a burqa, the full-length veil worn by many Muslim women. The controversy was on.

In Naples, some Catholic Church leaders criticized the funding for the mosque. The Reverend Ciro Cocozza, a parish priests at Ponticelli's Madonna della Neve church explained delicately: "It's not a question of intolerance. Indeed, people here wonder why, if Italy can host mosques, why can't Saudi Arabia host Churches? It's a question of reciprocity. And not only that, but the government pays!"

Riboldi said government funding created a "dangerous precedent" and predicted, "There will be resistance if the project goes forward."

On the streets of Ponticelli, criticism is practical rather than philosophical. At the sacco barbershop, customers wondered why the government had money to spend on a mosque when the roof at Ponticlli's elementary school leaks, its road have potholes and petty crime is rampant.

"It's a question of priorities," one said. Another voiced concern that the neighborhood would become a magnet for what locals call "strange outsiders."

"This is not a neighborhood mosque for people who live here," he said. "It will bring people from all Naples. What will they do?"

A third man expressed the general fear of immigrants. Ponticelli is a way station for immigrants from Albania, a group that has been blamed for violent crime the length of Italy. "Why Ponticelli for this mosque" Why not vomero?" the man asked referring to a well-off district of Naples. "Haven't we had enough dumped on us?"

City planners expect the project to go ahead. Liberal and conservative members of the city commission originally endorsed the project. Muslims estimated to number 10,000 in this city of 3 million were already praying at provisional mosques in central Naples. The National Alliance. Trying to moderate its image, largely supported the plan.

Proponents argued that government participation would ease suspicion that the mosque would become a center for fundamentalism. "After Sept. 11, everybody wants to know who behind the mosque," said Boccoloni, the head of Naples Islamic Association, who converted to Islam six years ago. "The government is the perfect candidate," He said he campaigned for government funds to avoid foreign financing. "I want our mosque to be Italian not foreign."

Macro Di Lello, a planner for the regional government defended the decision to fund the mosque on the ground that the state had long funneled money into religious projects including refugee camps ran by Christian denominations and the sprucing up of Rome for the Vatican's jubilee year in 2000.

Nonetheless, he said the government would try to find supplementary funding from abroad. "The mosque provides social services as well as religious space," Di Lello said. "So we don't have trouble funding it."

The local government tried to make the mosque project more attractive by combining it with a multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan. The proposal includes housing and road repairs, public transportation improvements, hotel construction and creation of high-tech industry.

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