(AA) – The dazzling city of Lecce, known as the Florence of the South, is set to become the location of Italy’s first Islamic university, with plans to begin teaching a small number of theology students in the coming months, its founder said.
Despite facing a number of obstacles and some persistent local opposition, the goal is to open the university complex within three years, launching the first such Islamic university in Europe, according to local media.
At a press conference held in early March, Giampiero Khaled Paladini, the president of the recently founded Islamic University Foundation, disclosed that theology classes would be taught at the foundation’s Lecce headquarters as soon as next October.
However, as interest was already high, the university would be looking for a larger premises in the near future, he added.
Paladini, however, has already seen one potential site – a former tobacco factory in Lecce that has been abandoned since the 1980s.
He is also reportedly looking at two other sites for the pioneering university which he envisages could, when completed, accommodate as many as 5,000 students.
Paladini, who converted to Islam three years ago, is a businessman. He is the head of a consortium that specializes in trade relations between Italy and countries of the Middle East.
The Quotidiano di Puglia newspaper reported that plans for the university would see the opening of a faculty of agriculture and a medical school within three years.
In addition to planning permission issues, the fledgeling university is also facing opposition from the local community, some of whom say the climate isn’t right for an Islamic university in their traditionally Roman Catholic city.
“The task of the administration is… to interpret the anxieties and fears of the citizens, and at this time, to start a project of this kind, is at the very least, inappropriate,” Severo Martini, the city’s alderman for urban planning told the Corriere della Sera of Milan newspaper. “The proposal does not interest us.”
Martini said there was concern over the financial soundness of the project, which reportedly would be financed by Gulf countries, including Kuwait.
“Ours is not a religious or political position – a few months ago we authorized the construction of a mosque in the San Pio area of the city, but the most striking thing is that even the imam with whom we discussed the project did not know anything about this project for an Islamic university,” the alderman added.
Forza Italia, the conservative party led by former PM Silvio Berlusconi, also has weighed into the debate.
Luigi Mazzei, a Forza Italia councilor in the regional government of Apulia, said, “From what we hear from the mayor of Lecce on the idea of an Islamic campus, it is difficult to express an opinion, since at the moment it is just a private idea to be realized. However I certainly would not be in favor of a university that ‘ghettoizes’ Muslims, going against the multi-cultural vocation that the Salento (area of Apulia) has always demonstrated.”
“I am convinced that true integration is achieved by living together and certainly not with a campus exclusively for Islamic people in which there would be no cultural interaction with our community and that therefore, would not represent an option for the growth of everyone,” Mazzei added.
Paladini has, however, refused to take no for an answer, contending that in the wake of terror attacks inspired by Daesh, the opening of a serious Islamic university would be an excellent method to create better integration in Italy and the impoverished mezzogiorno area of the country’s deep south.
He insisted that the institution will not be a purely theological body, but a general university teaching a variety of disciplines.
“This will be a step in the right direction toward dialogue and understanding,” he told the Corriere della Sera. “It would be an institution open to all.”