By Deepa Babington
ROME, Jan 11 (Reuters) – Italy’s defence minister warned the country’s Muslims to stop further “provocations” after thousands held prayers in public squares in Milan during pro-Palestinian demonstrations over the past week.
Ignazio La Russa, from the right-wing National Alliance, said he did not oppose protests or want to deny anyone the right to pray, but called the public prayers a challenge to peace.
“I say enough of the provocations of Islamists in Milan,” he told Il Giornale newspaper on Sunday. “In Milan, a legitimate demonstration ended in a deliberately provocative mosque under the open sky.”
Thousands of Muslims knelt with their heads bowed to the ground in prayer before Milan’s central train station in one of several pro-Palestinian protests on Saturday.
A week ago, Muslims held prayers in front of Milan’s central cathedral, angering right-wing politicians in the overwhelming Catholic country who called it an affront to Christianity.
Muslim leaders later apologised, saying no offence was intended. There are about 1 million Muslims in Italy, making up almost two percent of the population.
“What would have happened if a group of Christians gathered together to pray with a rosary before Mecca? They probably would have been stoned,” said La Russa, who described himself as a practicising Catholic who attends Mass almost every Sunday.
Milan’s deputy mayor issued a similar warning to Muslims, saying four protests in seven days was too much.
“Enough with pro-Hamas marches now,” said Riccardo De Corato. “Milan is not a province of Gaza and has no intention of reluctantly instituting this type of ‘Gaza Saturdays.'”
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, which includes the hardline anti-immigrant Northern League, has clashed with Italy’s Muslim community in the past.
It irked Muslims last year with plans to block the construction of new mosques in Italy.
Protests against the Israeli offensive continued in Italy on Sunday, with 3,000 people marching through the centre of Naples. Another 1,000 held hands to form a human chain and march through Rome’s historic centre to demand an end to violence in Gaza. (Editing by Katie Nguyen)