Italy’s Muslim refugees are joining in on Christmas festivities to assimilate into the culture.
In a country where 95 percent of the population is Catholic, any other religious group is clearly a minority. However, the population of Italy’s second largest religious group, Muslims, has shot up from 2,000 in the 1970s to about 2 million in 2016.
In recent years, Italy has received thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing rough economic conditions and civil war in places like Syria and Libya, resulting in an increase in the number of new Italian residents adhering to the Islamic faith.
In Italy, the state has not formally recognized Islam as a religion, though this courtesy has been extended to Judaism and Mormonism. Faced with backlash and fear from groups such as the ultra-nationalist Northern League and the lack of official recognition by the state, Muslims have had to make do with very few mosques and to show their willingness to integrate into Italian society.
To this end, there are numerous Muslim families taking part in Christmas celebrations this year. Christmas holds an important place in the heart of Christianity, as it is a birthday celebration of Jesus, the man depicted in the Bible as the Messiah and the savior of mankind from its woes. In Islam, Jesus is venerated and revered as a prophet and a leader of his time, but his claims to divinity are repudiated, as this assertion goes contrary to a Muslim’s core beliefs.
An example of this taking place is a family of Muslim refugees from Syria taking part in the festive season so as enhance their integration experience. Hala, the mother, supervises her daughter Alina as she recites the story that birthed Christmas, “The three wise men bring pretty gifts to the baby Jesus after they follow a bright, bright star. The baby then grows up to become a hero.” Hala has strong feelings about teaching her children about Christmas, telling Alina to “pretend it is all a fairy tale with dolls.”
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When expressing her feelings on the integration process, Hala remarked, “If they sing holiday songs or learn about Christianity that will only enrich their understanding of the world. But I want to go back to Syria someday, so I don’t want them to become too European and forget our own traditions. This is temporary, not permanent.” On her stay in Italy, she comments, “I am such an outsider here. 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.”
There are only 8 official mosques in the country following the closure of some mosques in October which led to mass protests. These figures can be compared to the 2,000 plus mosques in France and 1,750 mosques in the United Kingdom. With Pope Francis’ invitation to visit the Great Mosque of Rome, Yahya Pallavicini, the current Imam of Milan stated, “We have had positive interfaith experiences recently. That can only help with recognition, though integration, of course, is another matter entirely.”