Summary paragraph: The government and groups representing 70 percent of the country’s Muslims signed a text pledging cooperation to combat radicalism and promote social cohesions and integration among Muslims, to include training of imams to manage funds transparently and deliver sermons in Italian. In a precedent-setting decision, the country’s highest court upheld the conviction of a Sikh man for carrying a kirpan (a ceremonial knife), who had defended the action due to its religious significance. Muslims continued to encounter difficulties obtaining permits for new or existing mosques. The city council of Sesto San Giovanni blocked construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque, and Milan municipal officials continued to withhold authorization to construct two new mosques, as well as a Protestant church. Mestre and Rome each closed a Bangladeshi “garage” mosque, and a citizens’ group sought a referendum to block construction of a new mosque in Pisa. In Rome, a regional court in Lazio ordered authorities to reopen five garage mosques police had shut down 2016. In Bologna, for the first time in 20 years, authorities barred Muslims from using the local stadium to celebrate Eid al-Adha. Politicians from several parties made statements criticizing Islam, and one called for the expulsion of an imam for statements he made about women.
Although the government had reportedly negotiated draft agreements with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal Church governing its relations with those groups, the government did not submit the draft agreements to parliament for approval.
Muslim groups had also not reached an accord specifying their relations with the state. In February the MOI reached a preliminary agreement with Muslim groups but failed to finalize an accord, reportedly due to the absence of a single legal group representing all Muslim communities. Paolo Naso, an academic and independent advisor who acted as chairman of the committee that drafted the agreement, stated it was an important step toward a formal accord between the government and the Muslim community. There was no further progress on a final accord after the preliminary agreement. As a result, mosques remained ineligible for state funding through the taxpayer set-aside program available to religious groups with such agreements, and Muslim employees were not guaranteed the right to take the day off on religious holidays. According to government and other officials, a formal accord was unlikely to be finalized absent the establishment of one umbrella group representing all the Muslim associations. At year’s end, the only Muslim group legally recognized as a religious entity by the MOI was the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which ran the Great Mosque of Rome. Other Muslims groups were recognized as nonprofit organizations.
On February 1, Minister of Interior Marco Minniti and nine Islamic federations and associations, including the three largest federations – the Union of Italian Muslim Communities, Italian Islamic Confederations, and Italian Muslim Youth Community, collectively representing almost 70 percent of Muslims in the country – signed an agreement to jointly combat radicalism and advance social cohesion and integration of Muslims, especially the second generation. It included provisions for training imams to deliver sermons in Italian, but without specifying who would fund the training, and stipulated that communities must transparently manage funds and donations from domestic followers and from abroad.
On May 15, the Cassation (Supreme) Court upheld the conviction of a Sikh man, an Indian citizen, for carrying a kirpan. The defendant, who had been sentenced to pay a 2,000 euro ($2,400) fine, argued that wearing a knife, like wearing a turban, amounted to respecting a religious precept sacred to Sikhs. In what judicial analyst Alessandro Negri said was an important, precedent-setting decision, the court disagreed, arguing that a “multiethnic society is a necessity, but cannot be conducive of conflicting cultural visions, as in the cultural and judicial context of a country [Italy] where public security is a general goal to protect by means of banning arms.”
Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. As of November there were five officially recognized mosques, one each in Ravenna, Rome, Colle Val D’Elsa, Milan, and Forli (inaugurated in May), compared with more than 800 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims, known colloquially as “garage” mosques. Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite a lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits. Although municipalities, such as Milan, could and did withhold construction permits for other religious groups, the shortage of formal places of worship appeared to be most acute for Muslims. Local politicians from the Northern League Party, including Jacopo Alberti, a Lombardy regional councilor, expressed concerns for Muslim communities that hoped to build their own mosques.
On October 10, the city council of Sesto San Giovanni near Milan blocked the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque, on the grounds that the center did not comply with all the requirements stipulated in two documents signed in 2013 and 2015. In particular, the council said the center failed to allot funds to build parking and other services, as previously agreed.
On September 1, local authorities in Bologna prohibited the use of a stadium for the celebration of Eid al-Adha. The President of the Islamic Cultural Center, Boubakeur Gueddouda, expressed his regret and disappointment, stating the Muslim community had used the arena to celebrate Eid al-Adha for the previous 20 years.
On March 20, Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala stated the Lombardy regional law requiring strict construction standards for places of worship, as part of urban planning codes, significantly limited the possibility of municipal authorities to authorize new mosques.
On April 7, the Constitutional Court upheld the provision of a 2016 Veneto regional law restricting the location of new places of worship to urban peripheries. The court overturned another provision of the same law that required use of the Italian language during religious services, ruling the provision affected freedom of worship.
In Florence, Mayor Dario Nardella and Imam Izzeddin Elzir continued discussions but did not identify a suitable location to construct a mosque for the Muslim community. The estimated 30,000 local Muslims continued to pray in three small locations across the city, which were not large enough to accommodate demand. In June the mayor proposed to the local Muslim community that they could establish a mosque in a former barracks on the outskirts of the city in Scandicci, but the local authorities there blocked the initiative. The local Muslim community was also looking into raising private funds for acquisition of space for use as a mosque, but the community leaders stated lack of authorization remained the main impediment to mosque construction. On December 22, Archbishop of Florence Giuseppe Betori signed an agreement with Imam Elzir for the construction of a mosque on land the Church sold to the Muslim community in Sesto Fiorentino, outside of the Florence city limits. According to press reports, if built, the mosque, with a capacity for several hundred worshippers, would not be able to accommodate all of greater Florence's Muslim community, which numbered approximately 30,000 persons.
The city of Milan continued to withhold authorization, as it had in 2016, to build two new mosques and a Protestant church, citing limited capability to identify proper venues, as required by Lombardy regional law under which local governments may apply urban planning rules to restrict the location of places of worship.
The Muslim community of Thiene in the Veneto region began the construction of a mosque for which they had received a building permit in 2015 in accordance with the region’s legal requirements. The mosque was still under construction at year’s end.
Citing a lack of construction permits or inadequate safety standards, the city of Mestre, on April 5, and the city of Rome, on October 6, each closed down a garage mosque run by a Bangladeshi religious community. Community representatives organized public demonstrations of 100-200 persons in Mestre and Rome in October, stating they had no legal means of establishing new places of worship. The city of Mestre pledged to authorize the community to open a new mosque elsewhere but had not done so by year’s end.
In separate decisions, a Lazio regional court ordered Rome authorities to reopen five garage mosques police had closed in 2016 because they lacked proper authorization. The mosques reopened.
Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship. Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.
An association of local citizens requested a referendum on the construction of a new mosque in Pisa on the grounds that there was already an Islamic place of worship and “the money for the new mosque might come from Qatar, which funds the Muslim Brotherhood.” The referendum request was pending at year’s end.
On April 29, Veneto Regional Council member Elena Donazzan of the Forza Italia Party called for the expulsion from the country of Nuhi Krasniqi, an imam and head of the Sunna Muslim association in Bassano del Grappa, after Krasniqi called for the submission of women to God and the Prophet Muhammad during a television interview. Referring to Krasniqi, Donazzan said, “If the imam does not like the idea that a woman … can stroll on the streets of her city without a veil, he can pack up his bags and go back to where he came from.”
Politicians from several political parties, including the Northern League, Brothers of Italy, and CasaPound, made statements critical of Islam. Interviewed by the daily newspaper Die Welt on January 3, Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said, “The culture of Islam is backward, and not compatible with our society.” CasaPound organized a September 27 march in Rome calling for the closure of garage mosques. Giorgia Meloni, President of the Brothers of Italy Party, tweeted on October 9, “We can’t deny there is a process of Islamization going on in Europe.”
The government held a series of events in commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27. President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony in which he stressed the need “to learn, study, and think. Nothing can stop our will to remember.” On January 18 and 19, Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli accompanied a group of 100 students to visit Auschwitz in cooperation with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI). She also signed an agreement with the union to promote training for teachers and programs for students to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. On January 19, Mayor Sala led a ceremony by the Milan city government to dedicate a stolpersteine, a commemorative cobblestone for Holocaust victim Dante Coen, the first of six such commemorative cobblestones for Italian Holocaust victims.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.