The Vatican said it was in favor of Italian schools providing lessons on Islam for Muslim children. The cardinal in charge of the Vatican's department for Justice and Peace said he saw nothing wrong with the inclusion of an hour on Islam in school timetables.

The Catholic Church said it will not stand in the way of Muslim children learning about the Koran in Italian schools. Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the cultural and religious identity of the children attending schools in Italy must be respected.

The cardinal was speaking at a meeting titled "The Ways of Peace" under way at the French cultural center in Rome. He was responding to a request made this week by the Islamic Council for Muslim children to be able to have lessons in their own religion.

The Islamic Council is a body with only advisory powers, which includes 16 representatives of the Muslim community set up by the Italian government last year as a bridge between the Italian state and the growing Muslim community.

The Italian prelate said,  "If in a school there are 100 Muslim children, I don't see why their religion should not be taught. This is simply respect for human beings."

Cardinal Martino said Europe and Italy have reached a level of democracy and respect for others and it cannot go back. Only dialogue and religious freedom, he added, can avoid fundamentalism. He said all religions are for peace and seek co-existence and collaboration wherever possible.

The president of the Union of Islamic communities in Italy, Mohamed Nour Dachan welcomed Cardinal Martino's statements, praising the path of "dialogue and reciprocal respect" he said was launched by Pope John Paul II and continued by Benedict XVI.

The Italian representative of the World Muslim League, Ambassador Mario Scialoja, reacted differently.  While appreciating the openness shown by the Church, he said Italy is a secular state and it would be better to set up an hour when children looked at the history of religions.  Otherwise, he added, soon Buddhists and Hindus will want their own hour of religion as well.

Italian public schools have a statutory hour for religious education every week. Until now it has been exclusively based on Catholic teachings and beliefs. Parents are allowed to withdraw their children and have them do something else during the lesson if they wish.