By Haley Edmondson

FLORENCE, Italy – After years of discussion and setbacks, the project to build greater Florence’s first mosque and cultural center is back on. This time it looks like it might just happen.

The government of Sesto Fiorentino, a Florence suburb, is accepting proposals for the construction of a mosque, making the mosque proposal again a possibility, even a probability, according to the project’s principal negotiators. These negotiators include the mayor of Sesto Fiorentino, Florence’s imam and the Catholic diocese of Florence.

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Izzeddin Elzir

Relatively few Muslims in this predominantly Catholic country have access to mosques or prayer centers, sending them to unofficial spaces and places, like basements and garages, to pray. In metropolitan Florence alone, there are approximately 36,000 Muslims, according to Izzeddin Elzir, Florence’s imam and president of the Union of the Islamic Community of Italy, while Italy is home to an estimated 1.7 million Muslims. But so far, Florence has had no mosque.

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Lorenzo Falchi

Hearing requests from the Islamic community, 38-year-old Sesto mayor Lorenzo Falchi sent a proposal to Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, Catholic archbishop of Florence, suggesting that the archdiocese sell land to the Islamic community so that a mosque could be built. The cardinal was receptive and since then, Betori, Falchi and Elzir have been working to make the mosque a reality.

Choosing a design

As of December 2017, Falchi, Elzir, Betori and the University of Florence, which owned the land now designated for the mosque, came to an agreement, according to both Falchi and Elzir. The diocese approved the sale of the land, which is adjacent to another parcel of land the church is purchasing from the university and opposite the Madonna del Piano Church.

Elzir credited Betori for the “wisdom” of a proposal that gave all parties something from which to benefit.

An international bidding process for designs for the mosque has begun. The architect who is selected will present to Sesto Fiorentino a proposed timeline and estimates of the cost of building. Once all bids have been submitted, a selection will be made by giving 50 percent of the final vote to “a jury of the city and the different entities involved” and 50 percent to Sesto’s residents, according to Falchi, as translated by Lilia Lamas, a resident of Sesto. This combination is meant to ensure that the residents are “invited to vote and pretty much select the one that they would like,” he said.

The mosque will likely be developed by the Islamic community for the Islamic community, and that it will be privately funded, as well, Falchi said. The local government “does not provide funding for the construction of mosques,” he was careful to add.

Elzir said fundraising has begun and is well underway.

Although the mosque project could have been blocked through zoning changes, Falchi worked to facilitate discussions to bring the project to where it is now, according to several accounts, including that of Elzir.

“Sesto as a city has a tradition of being progressive and open to dialogue and liberty of faith in the community,” Falchi said. “The liberty of religion is very important. The city has very strong convictions for religion or for the freedom to practice whatever religion you choose.”

Goals of the project

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Town Hall, which anchors Sesto’s main piazza, Piazza Vittorio Veneto.

For Elzir, the mosque is intended to serve all of Sesto and Florence, not merely Muslims in the area. And it will be much more than a place of worship, he said.

“We hope that it’s a place for studying, for interfaith dialogue and cultural initiative,” he said from his offices in Florence’s city center. “It will be a place open for all to share.”

Elzir said the goal is to have the mosque built in the next three years, or by 2022.

Elzir said for the Muslim community, this dialogue isn’t about attempting to change anyone’s religion or beliefs, but rather to learn and understand more about one another. If understanding is achieved, it can lead to respect, he said.

“We [Elzir, Falchi and Betori] are working as citizens while respecting each other as human beings, without distinction of religion or nationalism or language,” Elzir said. “We are citizens, so we must work together for the betterment of our city.”

Message to the world

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Via Felice Cavalotti, one of Sesto’s primary commercial streets leading out from Town Hall.

The remarkable cooperation among the Catholic church, the city of Sesto, the Islamic community in the region, and the University of Florence stands in sharp contrast to relations in many other countries, including the United States.

In 2010, construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center was proposed near Ground Zero in New York City. The controversy that followed doomed the project, even though New York’s mayor was supportive of the initiative.

According to The Guardian newspaper in London, Sesto “has become a model for how to treat migrants with dignity while keeping local people onside.”

When needs of Islamic community members were not being met, it was “a very natural process to create this dialogue and to extend the facilitation for these communities to find a space of worship,” said the mayor, who stands in sharp contrast to the shift to the far right in recent national elections.

If the Sesto mosque is realized, it will tell the world “that we must have an open mind and we mustn’t fear difference, in particular religious difference,” Elzir said. “We mustn’t live in fear from the other.”

Elzir quoted a Palestinian poet, translating from Arabic into Italian, then into English: “Fear does not stop death, but fear does stop life.”

The project is being watched by people far beyond either the Muslim community broadly understood or Sesto Fiorentino.

“Society generally is becoming much more polarized — people are breaking up more than coming together,” Father William Lister, chaplain of St. Mark’s English Church in Florence, said. “It’s more important than ever for churches and other public institutions to try to draw people together.” 

Not running from immigration

For Sesto, the mosque’s proposed construction is not an isolated event. Immigrant integration programs have been implemented in Sesto to facilitate discussion and provide opportunities for members of what is a diverse community to interact, according to Falchi.

“You must pursue what you think is correct in the view of your community and who you represent, even if you make mistakes,” said Falchi, a young, socialist mayor, explaining why he was willing to risk so much political capital pursuing the project. “Always follow through with whatever you believe is right.”

Falchi said Sesto, which was annexed into Italy in 1860, has been known as left-winged when it comes to politics for a long time. The city’s Giuseppe Pescetti became only the country’s second socialist member of Parliament in 1897, and in 1899, Sesto became the first municipality in Tuscany to have a socialist mayor.

Sesto is home to about 49,000 residents, approximately 10 percent of whom are foreign residents, according to Falchi, who was elected less than two years ago. Many come from north African countries, and they represent a variety of religious viewpoints, Falchi said.

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