Muslim faithful pray under a tent set up by the Church of Gallarate in its courtyard.

In the town of Gallarate, north of Milan, Muslims have no mosque in which to celebrate Ramadan. Instead, for the past three years, they have prayed in a plot of land belonging to...the local church.

The parish of San-Nazario and Celso set up a large, carpeted tent in an unused courtyard behind their church to offer their Muslim neighbours a place of worship during Ramadan. The local priest, Father Adriano Colombo, took this initiative in the hope of "opening dialogue between different cultures". The townspeople were reluctant at first, but eventually came to terms with the decision.

Gallarate counts about 50,000 inhabitants, of which 2,500 are Muslim. It is situated in a region led by the Northern League, Umberto Bossi’s xenophobic and far-right party.

Muslims pray in a tent sent up in Gallarate's churchyard.


The imam of Gallarate adresses worshippers

The tent set up and furnished by the Church of Gallarate.

The churchyard where the tent was set up.

The church of Saint-Nazario and Celso à Gallarate.

All photos were sent by our Observer Maurizia Bonvini.

"We are very grateful to the church for its hospitality, but we wish we could have a place of our own"

Hamid Khartaoui, 43, is originally from Morocco. He has lived in Gallarate for 22 years and is the spokesperson of the Muslim community there.

Usually Friday prayers are held in the indoor part of a small stadium, which we rent for 115 euros per hour. But during Ramadan, there can be up to 200 worshippers, and the rented room is too small to accommodate us all. We’re very grateful to the church for its hospitality, but we wish we could have a place of our own.

We’ve been fighting about this with local authorities for several years now. In 2005, the city hall closed down our cultural centre, which we also used as prayer room, claiming it didn’t meet minimum hygiene and security standards. Two years later, the Muslim community began paying a special tax to finance the purchase of a 400 meter-square hangar for the sum of 300,000 euros. The transformation of an industrial building into a cultural and religious centre needs to be approved by city authorities. So far, however, it has refused to grant us permission to begin the refurbishing work. I don’t think the citizens of Gallarate have anything to do with this – there’s clearly a lack of political goodwill. After all, we are in Lombardy, the Northern league’s stronghold.

Surprisingly, though, neighbouring towns run by Northern League mayors all have a space specifically for Muslim communities. I think the only reason Gallarate is holding out is because our mayor is from the centre right PDL party [the coalition headed by President Silvio Berlusconi], and he’s afraid he could lose his mandate if he’s accused of being too ‘soft’ on immigrants.

The League uses xenophobia as a campaign argument to get popular support, but once the elections won things change. In Varese [the first town to elect a Northern League mayor, Raimondo Fassa, from 1993 to 1998], the mayor had promised to close down the Islamic centre if he was elected. He did, but soon afterwards authorised a new and larger one to open! In Gallarate, however, the situation seems deadlocked. The administration presented a new urban development plan early this summer, stipulating that the city’s only places of worship are Catholic. This is contrary to the Italian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. "