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+ Overview

There are 1 million Muslims living in Italy's largely Catholic population of 57 million. Most Muslims have immigrated to Italy in the last 10 to 20 years, and they primarily have come from Morocco, Albania, and Tunisia. Less than 10 percent hold Italian citizenship.

Rabei's apartment in Milan.

Most major non-Catholic religions in Italy hold what's called an "intesa" with the government, which entitles their ministers to certain privileges, including the right to preside over events like weddings and funerals. The intesa also acknowledges the religion's holidays. Islam does not yet have an intesa with the Italian government, due to internal divisions and weak political support from the government leaders.

As immigrants continue to enter their country, Italians find themselves concerned about integration and maintaining a national identity. Critics say negative feelings about Muslims were reinforced and encouraged by the tone of political debate amongst politicians and in the media in the aftermath of 9/11. The United Nations Committee Against Racial Discrimination has expressed concern that Italy does not do enough to prevent hate crimes, in part because the government's negative attitude towards Muslims, who have also experienced discrimination in finding housing, getting funding for mosques, and finding a voice in politics.

+ Major Terrorist Plots and Arrests

related interview

+ In April 2001, Italian police arrested Essid Sami Ben Khemais, nicknamed "the Saber," and believed to be Al Qaeda's chief European representative. In February 2002, Ben Khemais and three other Tunisians were convicted on charges of selling false identity papers to men traveling to Afghanistan, and of criminal intent to obtain and transport arms, explosives and chemicals. They were sentenced to up to 5 years in jail; the light sentences were due to the fact that Italy did not have an anti-terrorism law prior to 9/11.

+ In February 2002, nine Moroccans were arrested for allegedly plotting to attack the U.S. embassy in Rome, by poisoning the water supply. Police found maps showing the embassy location and 10 pounds of chemicals in the men's apartment building, and after the arrest, they found holes in an underground tunnel connected to the embassy. The men insisted they were innocent and argued the case was driven by fear of terrorism. In April 2004, all nine were acquitted.

+ In November 2003, Abderrazak Mahdjoub, an Algerian suspected of running a cell to recruit suicide bombers to send to Iraq, was arrested in Hamburg, Germany at the request of Italian authorities, who were investigating a smuggling ring with links to Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic militant group based in northern Iraq. He was extradited to Milan in March 2004 and is suspected to stand trial in 2005. Italian police later told the Associated Press that the ring was suspected of having recruited at least 200 fighters destined for Iraq.

+ In June 2004, police in Milan arrested Rabei Osman El Sayed Ahmed, the alleged mastermind of the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004. Ahmed's phone number had been found in the address book of another Madrid suspect, and Italian police placed listening devices in his home and telephone. They listened for two months and heard Ahmed allegedly readying a friend for a suicide mission and boasting of his role in the Madrid bombings. His trial is scheduled to start on Jan. 31, 2006.

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posted jan. 25, 2005; updated feb. 6, 2006

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