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Right-wing fury at Islamic courses plan

ITALY. A decision to open schools out of hours for lessons in Islamic culture has triggered a furious row involving politicians, the Catholic Church and local government.

The northern province of Trento, which enjoys a high degree of autonomy, has agreed to let the local Islamic community use schools for courses in Arabic and Islamic culture. The courses are meant for Muslim pupils who now make up 2 per cent of the school population, and who would otherwise, in the opinion of community leaders, lose touch with their traditions.

But for Erminio Boso, an outspoken exponent of the Northern League, one of three main parties sharing power in Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government, the project is part of a "planned invasion".

"We have to be on our guard and stick to our Christian values," said Mr Boso, who is nicknamed Obelix for his girth and belligerent character. "I say that as someone who hates priests and never goes to church."

Mr Boso reflects the diffidence of many ordinary Italians, especially in smaller towns, towards the growing immigrant population. In January there were 2.4 million "regularised" immigrants, an increase of 30 per cent in just 12 months. If illegal immigrants were counted, the total would be much higher. Many of them end up working in the small industries of the north, in Trento and the neighbouring Veneto region.

Last year, a Northern League colleague of Mr Boso put forward the idea of separate railway carriages for migrant workers on the Verona Trento line, which carries many immigrants to work.

Politicians from other parties in the centre-right coalition are less overtly racist, but have expressed concerns about lessons in Islamic culture. The concerns are not shared by the local Catholic Church, which thinks the lessons could make a positive contribution to the dialogue between local and immigrant communities - a viewpoint shared by the imam at the local mosque, Aboul Kheir Breigheche.

"We have good relations with the diocese," he said, adding that many Muslim children attend RE lessons during school hours.

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