Believe it or not! A parish Church turns into a mosque every Friday, for the Muslims brothers and to offer their customary prayers. This isn’t a sequence from any Bollywood film, but a reality in the parish of Our Lady of Assumption of Ponzano near Venice, the romantic city of Italy. The pastor of the parish, Don Aldo Danieli, 69, affirms, "It’s useless to speak of religious dialogue and then bang the door on their face. Pope John Paul II addressed them as, ‘dear Muslim brothers’. How can we close our church doors to them?"
At Ponzano, in the province of Treviso, live some 11,500 people of whom 232 families are immigrants, making their number roughly 650. These are mainly immigrants from North African countries and Eastern Europe. Two years ago, Don Aldo decided to open the doors of the church to these Muslim immigrants and keep a portion of his own parochial house including a kitchen and a little at their disposal. On Fridays an average of 200 Muslim believers gather in the church and offer prayers. But in the month of Ramadan, the number swells to 1000-1200. "They requested me and I said yes, moreover, the kitchen and hall were a home for spiders".
The decision of Don Aldo has disturbed the peace of mind of more than a few parishioners. The protests of even the local bishop and priests have reached his ears. "I haven’t asked the express permission of the bishop, because it’s an act of charity. No permission is needed to do charity. For the rest, I am older than the bishop and been his professor in the seminary too. Even if had prohibited me, I wouldn’t be obliged to obey him," Don Aldo is firm in his resolve. He does not hesitate to proclaim, "Better praying Muslims than non praying Christians. If you brand me a racist, you are wrong". In the last two years a Don Aldo has received a number of emails and letters advising him to "remain with his own flock". The letters cautioned him, "These people come as immigrants and then claim the place for themselves and throw us out". Don Aldo has taken into confidence the Parish Pastoral Council and is unrelenting. "The pope has exhorted to open wide the doors to Christ: Christ lives in Muslims too."
Meanwhile, there have been protests from public spheres too. "I urge the bishop to clarify the position of the Church in this regard", demands Luca Zaia, the vice president of the Federation of a few right wing politicians, "so that this does not set a precedence for such efforts in the history of Venice". "Moreover, in this initiative, there isn’t a grain of reciprocity. In some of the Muslim countries, they won’t give an inch to us to offer our prayers. These "feel-good" gestures would lead us nowhere. Integration must begin from their part. The immigrants must learn to insert themselves into mainstream, our culture, traditions and identity. The immigrants must know that before demanding their rights, they must adhere to their duties." Luca justifies.
Don Aldo runs an Arab School in the church premises, for the education of immigrant Muslim children.
Italy, of late has been a favorite destination for immigrants especially for North African and Eastern European Muslims. The public opinion with regard to immigrants is divided. "At last, a tangible gesture of openness and acceptance", comments one in the largest Italian ?Corriere della Sera’. "It’s useless to preach openness and then hold on to one’s own prejudices. This priest makes us trust in the future," writes another. "The saddest thing is that, the church of Our Lady of Assumption has larger congregation on Fridays than Sundays" comments one, "Hope one day the pastor does not convert himself to Islam" quips another in ?La Repubblica’ daily. Yet the majority is supporting the gesture of the pastor, Don Aldo Danieli.
As the case of Don Aldo is being discussed and debated, in Padova, the city of St. Anthony, the members of the federation of the right wing politicians, have paraded a pig in the location where the municipality of Padova had decided to transfer the existing mosque from Anelli Street. The leader of the confederation, Mariella Mazzetto said:" We have ?blessed’ the place by parading a pig, before the municipality could transfer the mosque to the place." " This is a question of Italian identity. We demand a referendum be done by the municipality before they venture into such stupidities".
The mayor of Padova, Flavio Zanonato, condemning the act, said: "The majority of the dwellers of Padova are ashamed of this. This isn’t the culture of Padova. In this city live more than 7,000 Muslim immigrants. While we are discovering ways and means to live a well integrated life, this type of acts sends out a wrong message to them".
In the changed circumstances of globalization, Italy is slowly getting used to immigrants of religions and cultures other than Christian. Cases like Don Aldo’s, give rise to regional and national debates on integration and immigration, which are so important to a country in which the Heart of Christianity is situated!!
(Photographs courtesy – Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica)
Author: Fr. Chetan- Capuchin- Rome