ROME—Eight-year-old Alina, a Muslim refugee from Syria, had never seen a Christmas nativity scene before last year.
But after Alina was able to secure a spot in a public elementary school in central Rome, through a program to integrate refugees led by the Catholic Church, she now knows where all the characters go and generally why there are there. “The three wise men bring pretty gifts to the baby Jesus after they follow a bright, bright star,” she explains as her mother listens carefully. “The baby then grows up to become a hero.”
Alina’s mother, Hala, wants her daughter and her younger brother, age five, who attends a local Italian nursery school, to integrate—but only to a certain point. She says that while she means no disrespect to the Catholic Church or its teachings, she advises her daughter to “pretend it is all a fairy tale with dolls.”
But she won’t stop them from taking part in their new culture. “If they sing holiday songs or learn about Christianity, that will only enrich their understanding of the world,” she says. “But I want to go back to Syria some day, so I don’t want them to become too European and forget our own traditions. This is temporary, not permanent.”
Hala and her children have already been in Italy for three years. They were among the first refugees who arrived in Greece by way of Turkey and while they immediately qualified for a resettlement program, they were already on a long waiting list. They had hoped to go north to Germany or Sweden, but when the borders started closing up and they felt growing hostilities, they applied to come to Italy with a group of other fatherless families who just wanted to stop moving and settle down. Hala watched her husband bleed to death outside their home in Aleppo after being beaten for not joining the Syrian army. “That’s when I knew we had to leave,” she says. “But I vow to go back one day.”
Whether Hala and her children will ever have a safe place in Syria to return to in their lifetimes is a larger question that no one can yet answer. But until then, she plans to stay settled in Italy, even though she knows she will never really fit in. “I am such an outsider here,” she says. “Even within the tiny Muslim community, we feel we must all keep a low profile and just do what we can to blend in and not make a fuss. We need to just fit in as best we can.”
Hala wears a hijab but she isn’t sure she will make Alina wear one when she gets older. At the moment, Alina is dressed in bright pink from her hairband to her sparkly sneakers. “Maybe she will just wear it at home,” Hala says. “We are already walking a fine line just to get her into school.”
Hala and her family are part of a community of more than 1.6 million Muslims in Italy, making it the fourth-largest Muslim population in Europe and the second largest religion practiced in Italy after Catholicism. Except for the fact that, in Italy, Islam is not considered a religion at all since the state refuses to officially recognize it as such, unlike official recognitions of Judaism or the Mormon faith. More than 95 percent of Italians call themselves Catholic, according to the last census data, so even the second largest religion is minuscule by comparison.
But the lack of official state recognition, fueled almost entirely by leaders of the ultra-nationalist Northern League, makes it impossible for Muslims to build sufficient mosques and to feel they can practice their faith openly. Matteo Salvini, the Northern League leader, has called on Muslims to “adopt the Italian culture” or, as he says, “they can go build their mosques in their own backyards.”
What amounts to official denial of Islam’s existence in Italy also allows certain school districts to blatantly discriminate, and it gives non-Muslim parents just cause to insist on segregated classrooms. Many schools in northern Italy, the stronghold of the Northern League, use language and learning curve barriers as reasons not to integrate refugee and Muslim students into regular classrooms. And even when they are integrated, there is often no respect for cultural differences. A school in Varese recently announced that it required all children—no matter what their religion—to be blessed with Catholic holy water during religious celebrations. Mirko de Carli, a leader of the Popolo della Famiglia conservative party who pushed the holy water mandate, has been pressing schools in Italy to “stand by our Catholic values at all costs.”
But even if Italy’s Islamic community wanted to live separately, there is little opportunity. There are only eight official mosques in the entire country, compared to more than 2,000 in France and more than 1,750 in the United Kingdom, and lawmakers have recently pushed Muslims even further underground by closing some of the more than 800 cultural centers and prayer rooms where Muslims met to worship. Last summer Italy’s Interior minister Angelino Alfano declared that “mini mosques in garages should be banned.”
In October, a group of Muslims staged a pray-in protest outside the ancient Roman Colosseum after police closed down several cultural centers and prayer groups. “We feel people are pointing the finger at us,” Francesco Tieri, a convert to Islam told AFP at the time. “There is no political will to recognize that we are here and that we are a peaceful community. We are forced to rent places to pray—which for us is like breathing air. If we can’t do it, we die.”
The irony of it all is perhaps how well established Muslims are in Italy despite the slight by the state. The Great Mosque of Rome is the largest mosque in all of Europe, and truly a spectacular structure, with stunning architecture and a glorious décor. It is often visited by traveling dignitaries from Islamic countries who consider it a jewel among Islam’s religious sites.
It is open to the public twice a week and all women who want to enjoy the Friday morning food market are required to cover their heads, easily facilitated by groups selling scarves around the periphery. But most Muslims in Italy worship in garages, attics, in the backrooms of stores and, though briefly, inside a former Catholic Church as part of the Venice Biennale last year. The Rome city council is currently considering allowing Muslims to use a school gymnasium as a temporary prayer space after a series of prayer rooms were shuttered.
The mosques of Milan and Naples are also popular, not just with Muslims, but with authorities both in Italy and the United States that openly admit that they monitor all Friday prayer activities and log who is coming and going. Who can forget the extraordinary rendition case of Cleric Abu Omar one of the CIA’s most controversial scandals that involved surveillance gathered at the mosque in Milan.
Of course notoriety and recognition are two ends of the spectrum, and Italy’s Muslims would like a little more of the latter. Last May, the Italian Islamic Confederation, a Moroccan offshoot of the Italian Islamic Religious Community and the Italian Islamic Communities, officially petitioned the government for recognition once again. The petition has gone unanswered to date, in part because the three main Islamic groups in Italy are known for their own infighting about what they really want in the way of official recognition, which tends to throw a wrench in the works. Italy’s government, currently in crisis after the prime minister’s resignation on Wednesday, likely has other priorities at the moment.
Yahya Pallavicini, the current Imam of Milan, who heads the Italian Islamic Religious Community, which goes by CO.RE.IS., is perhaps the most recognized face of Islam in Italy. He represents the Muslim community at most secular and Catholic events, most recently taking the stage in a peaceful #notinmyname protest after the November Paris attacks. He was also present for a Catholic-led prayer service after the Orlando massacre in Florida last year.
He told The Daily Beast that the Italian state often relies on the “usual excuses” not to formally recognize Islam as a religion in Italy, but he hopes that will change in the near future. “We have had positive interfaith experiences recently,” he says, noting Pope Francis’s invitation to visit the Great Mosque of Rome. “That can only help with recognition, though integration, of course, is another matter entirely.”
As for little Alina, she’ll take the best of her new life in Italy. “There are presents with Christmas,” she says, noting the idea of Santa Claus seems a little far-fetched.
“We’ll do what we need to do to make our lives better for now,” her mother Hala says. “Within limits, of course.”