A rising tide of Muslims in Italy puts pressure on Catholic culture

In the Italian capital's abandoned Tiburtina railway station, clothes dangle from makeshift washing lines, and families camp out without running water or electricity - many waiting as long as 14 months to see if Italy will accept them as asylum seekers.

"I've been here a long time," says John Laki, who is still living on the weed-covered tracks more than five years after arriving from Sudan. "I keep trying to find a job. But it's always complicated. They gave me asylum, but they don't give me any money. How can a human being build their life [this way]?"

The 400 squatters in the station in central Rome - dubbed "Hotel Africa" - are a reminder of Italy's difficulty in taking in the waves of migrants escaping wars and dictatorships or seeking work in Europe.

While immigrants live largely apart from mainstream Italian society - doing manual or factory work or scraping a living peddling trinkets or vegetables on the streets - the influx of foreigners in recent years, many of them Muslim, is rapidly changing the cultural makeup of this Roman Catholic country.

The tension between the two worlds was apparent last month in an uproar over school crucifixes, which echoed cultural struggles in France and Germany, where the wearing of head scarves in schools and the use of ID cards are burning issues.

Italians were outraged when a judge ruled that crosses should be removed from classroom walls out of respect for Muslim pupils. In the normally quiet town of Ofena in central Italy, parents held a "hands off our crucifix" vigil outside the elementary school in question. The Education Ministry managed to win a temporary injunction against taking down the crosses pending a hearing next week.

While Italy is officially secular, more than 80 percent of Italians declare themselves Catholic. Legislation from the 1920s says crucifixes should be in every school, but some argue the subsequent secularization of the state makes the laws defunct.

The order to have them removed - a victory for the media-savvy Muslim, whose children attend the Ofena school - may have opened a legitimate debate, but it offended many Italians who say their national identity was being attacked.

"It is unacceptable that one judge should cancel out millennia of history," says Roberto Maroni, a Northern League labor minister. And many Muslims say that the issue raised unwelcome hostility between them and their Italian hosts.

"This is the last thing we need," says Jamel, a Lebanese immigrant who preferred not to give his full name. "Crucifixes are not the problem. My children are the only Muslims in their class, and they are happy. Finding a job - that is the problem. This kind of conflict will just make it harder."

Islam has become the country's second-largest religion, with the number of Muslims estimated at 700,000 to 1 million among a total population of 57 million. Only 30,000 Muslims have Italian citizenship. The rest are labeled extracomunitari - working on temporary visas or illegally.

Unlike other religious communities, Italy's Muslims have yet to be formally recognized by the state. Other religions, including Judaism and smaller groups such as the Assemblies of God and the Seventh-Day Adventists, have signed agreements with the government, giving them official recognition and a chance to benefit from a national "religion tax."

Talks are under way to establish a formal dialogue, but observers warn that the Muslim community has yet to overcome internal divisions, and right-wing elements in the Italian government are intent on blocking all dialogue.

"There is a kind of resistance to formally recognizing that we are here," says Khalid Chaouki, president of the Young Muslims of Italy, complaining that some right-wing mayors refuse to authorize plans to build mosques and cemeteries. "It is very hard to make people realize we are people, not just Muslims."

"Italians don't want immigrants, but they need them," says sociologist Franco Ferrarotti. "There is a great danger of radical discrimination here against Muslims. Immigrants will not be fully integrated in this country until they are given voting rights - and we are far from that."

In recent weeks, Italy's far-right Alleanza Nazionale has called for immigrants to be given the vote. The call is seen as a major U-turn from a party striving to break clear from its fascist roots to become a moderate mainstream party. But the Muslim vote still faces stiff opposition from parts of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government.