Milan Blocks Plan for Islamic Classes

Education authorities in Milan have blocked a plan by a local public school to create a separate class for Islamic students, a decision that fueled an ongoing debate over the role of Muslims in this predominantly Catholic nation.

The decision Tuesday came after days of raging controversy in Milan. Over the past months, two other cases have made headlines in Italy: that of a Muslim activist who went to court to have a crucifix removed from his son's public school classroom; and a kindergarten that asked a Muslim trainee teacher to remove her headscarf.

The plan by the Gaetana Agnesi school called for 20 high-school students of Egyptian origin — three boys and 17 girls — to study together. The girls would have been allowed to wear headscarves in class, and would have had Friday off for Muslim prayer services.

"The possibility of creating classes with students of the same language, culture and religion must be ruled out, because it would be in contrast with the constitutional principles and values aimed at overcoming all forms of discrimination," said Mario Giacomo Dutto, the head of school programs for the Lombardy region that includes Milan.

Giovanni Gaglio, the school principal, argued he was trying to guarantee the children a right to an education while preserving their cultural and religious identity.

"Our project was one of real integration, a challenge that I and all of us teachers believed in very much," he was quoted as saying Wednesday in the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The students came from a self-governed education center that was part of an Islamic mosque, officials said Wednesday. The education center was not a school recognized by Italy, but it taught 400 children, largely of Egyptian origin.

The childrens' parents proposed the separate class.

But many politicians and teachers' unions condemned the move as discriminatory. After Tuesday's decision, the Northern League, a member of the government coalition known for its tough anti-immigration stance, called for Gaglio's resignation.

Similar debates are taking place in many other Western countries. In France, girls are banned from wearing head scarves to school, a new law aimed at safeguarding the French principle of secularism.

Here, the issue gained particular attention because Italy has only recently begun to acknowledge large, non-Christian groups in its society.

This nation of 57 million people is overwhelmingly Catholic, but its immigrant population is rising and Muslims now number about 800,000, according to estimates. Some 5,000 Muslim students attend public schools in Milan and surrounding areas, officials said.

"School, which is a key institution, must have a secular nature," Renzo Guolo, a professor of sociology of religion at the University of Trieste, told Il Messaggero newspaper. "Nobody can seek to remain a stranger to the surrounding world."