Campaign seeks to block mosque construction near Pisa’s tower

(RNS) Italian Muslims decry a challenge to their religious freedom.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is seen behind the Cathedral of Pisa on July 19, 2012. The “Torre di Pisa,” the bell tower of the cathedral in the Italian city of Pisa, is known worldwide for its unintended tilt to one side. The tower began to lean in 1178 due to soft ground that could not properly support the structure's weight. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Clarissa Cavalheiro

PISA, Italy (RNS) A  campaign to block construction of a new mosque near the Leaning Tower of Pisa imperils Italy’s commitment to religious freedom, warn those who defend Muslims’ right to build it.

The proposed mosque, a few hundred yards from the world-famous tower, has been approved by Pisa’s city council, but opponents say it is too close to the tower, one of Italy’s top tourist attractions. Opponents also fear it could radicalize local Muslims.

“Today we are at war whether you like it or not and we have to fight it with whatever we have,” said Daniela Santanche, a lawmaker from the center-right Forza Italia party who joined protesters in Pisa last weekend (Aug. 20).

“Mosques should be closed, not opened, because they are not places of worship but places that preach hatred.”

Those leading the “No Mosque” campaign say they have gathered more than 2,000 signatures, which they claim is enough for a referendum to overturn the council decision.

But Izzedin Elzir, the president of the Union of Italian Islamic Communities, said any referendum would be “unconstitutional” and threaten Muslims’ religious freedom.

“Our rights should be protected,” Elzir told RNS. “This campaign is based on prejudice and opposition generated by politicians who want to win votes by exploiting fear after the recent attacks in France, Belgium and Germany.

“They need to take responsibility for fanning the flames of prejudice and creating panic,” he added.

Elzir said around 300 Muslims attend Friday prayers regularly in Pisa but he estimates there are as many as 3,000 Muslims in the town, including migrants who have moved there from Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Bangladesh.

The mayor of Pisa, Marco Filippeschi, said any move to block the project would be in contravention of freedom of worship, which is enshrined in the Italian constitution.

“For 20 years Muslims from Pisa have been coming together in a small mosque in the center of town and no one has ever protested,” Filippeschi said. He also stressed that “not one cent will be spent by the council administration to build the mosque.”

The dispute over the mosque made headlines just days after Italian authorities ordered the expulsion of a Tunisian man who they accused of planning an attack on the Leaning Tower.

Bilel Chiahoui, 26, was arrested after posting messages on social media praising the terrorists behind recent jihadist attacks in Europe and sharing plans to attack the monument.

One of Italy’s most recognizable landmarks, the Leaning Tower sits beside the city’s cathedral and baptistry.

Construction of the eight-story tower, which tilts dramatically to one side, was begun in 1173 and completed in 1399.

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