For the first time in Italy a town in Tuscany wants a referendum to be held on whether or not a large mosque should be built. The committee which promoted the referendum says it has the backing of at least 25 percent of the population.
Colle Val d'Elsa is a small town in the province of Siena. It has a population of 20,000, including about 500 Muslims. A small Islamic center has existed in town since 1990 but now the city council has plans for a much larger one.
The new 600-square-meter Islamic culture center is to be built inside the public park of San Lazzaro in a neighborhood where there are no Muslim residents. And this has led many citizens to start asking questions about the real need for such a center.
Lawyer Letizia Franceschi is president of the committee that promoted the referendum. She says the city council claimed all the residents of Colle Val d'Elsa agreed with the center. But she and others thought differently.
"We created this committee to ask the population of Colle Val d'Elsa whether they agreed that this new Islamic culture center should be built here," said Franceschi.
Franceschi says the idea of holding a referendum on construction of the mosque was first considered in light of the urban planning problem.
"We don't want a mosque to be built in the Park of Saint Lazzaro because it is a green area and we do not want the neighborhood to change," she said.
The lawyer and others who are against the mosque say people living in the area will wake up, look out of the windows and see the cement of the mosque instead of trees.
But that is not the only problem. Franceschi insists there has never been any tension with the small Islamic community in the area, but there are fears this could change if a large Islamic center is constructed.
At the moment only about 30 Muslims visit the mosque regularly to pray. But the Muslim community says more space is needed only for special occasions, like Ramadan. For those, the council makes available a large room at the sports center.
Two years ago, 4,000 signatures were gathered against the construction of the mosque. Many residents believe there is no real need for a larger Islamic center.
"The new mosque will not serve just the small community of this town," said Letizia Franceschi. "And that's what people are worried about. They ask themselves what guarantees there will be about those who visit the mosque."
Franceschi says the fears may be unjustified but many want to avoid tensions from arising with Muslims. The city council says everyone has a right to profess their religion and intends to move ahead with the planned construction.
A decision on whether the referendum will be held should be made next month. Franceschi still hopes the mosque will not be built or, in the least, that if it does get built, it will be smaller and does not destroy the environment.