Pro-Vatican politicians protest Gadhafi’s effort to convert Christians during Italy visit

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pro-Vatican politicians irked by Gadhafi in Rome

ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi threw a gala evening for his “friend” Moammar Gadhafi Monday, thanking him for strengthened ties between Tripoli and Rome and dismissing as behind the times those criticizing the Libyan leader for trying to convert Italians to Islam during the visit.

With Gadhafi wrapped in white robes at his side, Berlusconi hailed the North African leader for signing a friendship treaty exactly two years ago that the Italian called a “model of diplomacy in the era of globalization.”

In his two days in Rome, Gadhafi gave lectures on Islam to a few hundred young Italian women recruited by a modeling agency and paid to attend the sessions. Gadhafi handed out copies of the Quran, urged the women to take up Islam, and participants said three young women converted on the spot Sunday.

The women arrived by the busload. Some tottered on high heels and wore dresses with plunging necklines, while at least two were seen wearing Muslim-style veils. Another woman showed off a necklace she was given with a photo of Gadhafi dangling from it.

Left-leaning opposition lawmakers and pro-Vatican politicians in this predominantly Catholic county criticized the government’s failure to protest his behavior.

Rocco Buttiglione, head of the Union of Christian Democrats, told La Repubblica daily Monday — apparently in jest — that if he were to go to Libya to try to persuade Muslims to convert to Christianity, “you can bet I wouldn’t come back in one piece.”

The small opposition Italy of Values party protested outside the Libyan Embassy, with Sen. Stefano Pedica telling APTN that Gadhafi was “making fun of our country, from the moment he stepped down from his plane.”

But Berlusconi said those critics “belong to the past,” and he derided them as “prisoners of outdated models” of thinking.

“We, instead, want to look forward and at the future, for the good of our children and the entire international community,” he said in his tribute to Gadhafi.

Under the treaty, Italy agreed to pay Libya $5 billion over 20 years as compensation for its 30-year occupation. Most of that money will come in the form of Italy’s building a highway across Libya, from the border with Egypt to the border with Tunisia. Three consortiums of Italian companies will be involved in that ambitious project.

During the day, the two men inaugurated a photo show documenting the Italian colonial era in Libya.

“The images show the pain, the tragedy that one people inflicts” on another, the premier told an outdoor gathering of some 800 guests on the grounds of a Carabinieri paramilitary barracks.

Among the guests was Alessandro Profumo, CEO of Unicredit, Italy’s largest bank, which this month won the first international license to operate in Libya. Libya’s central bank has a 4 percent share in Unicredit.

Bedouin-dressed riders on 30 Libyan thoroughbreds flown up from the North African country thundered across the field to entertain the guests, who included the cream of Italy’s businessmen, from energy companies to construction firms to banking, many of them already benefiting from deals with Libya.

Earlier, Berlusconi met with Gadhafi inside the tent where the Libyan is staying on the grounds of the embassy, but there was no immediate indication if similar business deals might have been spawned from the visit.

A dinner with Gadhafi and the businessmen and politicians was scheduled to follow the entertainment and stretch into the early hours of Tuesday.

Taking advantage of decades of post-colonial ties with Libya, that were lucrative even when some of the West shunned Gadhafi as a sponsor of terrorism, Italian businesses are eyeing the multibillion dollar construction frenzy of housing and hotels in Libya.

Tripoli is tapping its oil wealth to reshape the country after Gadhafi renounced terrorism and the U.S. restored diplomatic relations.

Libya has long been an important supplier of oil and natural gas to Italy.

Gadhafi, making his fourth visit to Italy within a year, praised his “dear courageous friend, Berlusconi.”

The longtime Libyan leader used his nearly 40-minute speech to urge the European Union to pay Libya “at least €5 billion (almost $6.5 billion) a year” for Tripoli to stop the waves of clandestine African migrants who sail from the country’s Mediterranean shores in smugglers’ boats toward Western Europe.

Otherwise, Gadhafi warned, some day, Europe “could turn into Africa” with million of immigrants.

As part of the treaty, Libya agreed to crack down on the thousands of African migrants who set off from Libyan shores for Italy. Berlusconi’s key coalition partner in his conservative coalition is the anti-immigrant Northern League party.

The Italian government’s practice of returning those found at sea to Libya without screening them first for asylum has been criticized by human rights groups and Catholic church officials.

Amnesty International has also raised concerns about human rights in general, including use of torture, the death penalty and the lashing of women in Libya.

Berlusconi’s tribute to Gadhafi saw the two of them review some 130 Carabinieri horsemen saluting the Libyan as he arrived at the barracks and a shout from the mounted regiment’s leader of “Honors to the leader of the revolution, Moammar Gadhafi.”

Associated Press reporters Vito Panico and Daniele De Bernardin contributed to this report.

will not be displayed