There are some 1.5 million Muslims in Italy but only two official, purpose-built mosques – in Rome and Milan – plus a handful, around five, that resemble mosques but are in fact cultural associations, according to Nicoló Degiorgis, an Italian photographer who has spent years observing Muslims praying in the north-east of the country as part of an award-winning photobook, Hidden Islam.
This is in stark contrast to other European countries: Germany has 140 mosques with domes and minarets; the UK has around 200 purpose-built mosques. And while Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism and Mormonism are formally recognized religions in Italy, Islam, the country’s second largest religion, is not. This explains, in part, the furor over an art installation at Venice’s Biennale which sees a disused Catholic church transformed into a mosque.
Venice’s Santa Maria della Misericordia church, in the Cannaregio district, was turned into a mosque in April. It is the work of Christoph Büchel, an artist of joint Swiss and Icelandic nationality, who wanted the controversial installation to show that Venice’s 20,000 Muslims –who mostly live on the outskirts of the city – do not have a mosque of their own.
The installation has caused friction, and the Venetian authorities have threatened
to close it. A Right-wing party, Fratelli d’Italia, has also protested outside the church-turned-mosque.
During the course of his research, Degiorgis discovered Muslims praying in parking lots in the rain, in supermarkets, garages, etc. “I didn’t realize Muslims were using all these different kinds of spaces, it was surprising,” he says, adding,
“It causes Muslims great sadness and frustration”.
Imam Yahya Pallavicini, vice-president of the Islamic Religious Community in Italy, says: “We have just a few official mosques in the country and hundreds of Islamic centers, but many of these centers do not have the dignity or quality of an official place of worship. This is the reality.”
Pallavicini has mixed feelings about the art installation in Venice. He agrees with its sentiment but not its execution, saying it serves to give the impression that Muslims are not respectful of Italian culture.
“We need to find a solution which does not amplify people’s fears about Muslims,” Pallavicini says.
In Venice, relations between the city’s authorities and the Muslim community reportedly are good. But there is growing frustration that the majority of Muslims have to pray in their garages or flats. The nearest main Islamic centre is in Marghera, on the mainland, more than 10 kilometres away.
“We want our own place to pray,” says Mohamed Amin Al Ahdab, president of the Islamic Community of Venice. “Every day, Muslims come from all over the world to see Venice and they ask ‘Why don’t you have a mosque?'”