ROME: An agreement between the Italian government and the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (Italian: Unione delle Comunità e Organizzazioni Islamiche in Italia, UCOII) will allow imams to offer spiritual assistance to Muslim inmates detained in Italian prisons.
The memorandum of understanding follows an agreement signed last month between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and representatives from Islamic communities in Italy on the reopening of mosques and prayer rooms as part of the country’s ‘Phase 2’ response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. The agreement is considered by Muslim representatives as a step toward official recognition of Islam as a religion in Italy.
According to the Italian Ministry of Justice, nearly 10,000 of the 60,000 inmates detained in Italian prisons are foreigners, most of whom are from Morocco, Tunisia and Romania. Latest official figures show that 7,200 inmates are observant Muslims, with 97 considered imams as they guide prayers within jails and 44 saying they converted to Islam during their detention.
In only few Italian jails, however, are Muslim inmates provided with spaces dedicated for prayer, which are not sufficient to meet the demand. By contrast, every prison has a Roman Catholic chapel where religious services are regularly held by priests, most of whom are paid by the Italian state.
The memorandum was signed by Department of Penitentiary Administration Chief Judge Bernardo Petralia and UCOII President Yassine Lafram.
“It implements the principle of religious freedom for all citizens established in the Constitution of the Italian Republic, which guarantees prisoners the right to profess their religious faith also while they are in detention. Considering the increasing multiethnicity of the Italian prison population, it is necessary to allow every religion to be professed in a proper way,” a statement from the Italian Ministry of Justice says.
According to the protocol, UCOII will provide prison administration with a list of people who “perform the functions of imam in Italy” and who are “interested in guiding prayers and worship within prisons nationwide.” The list will also specify at which mosque or prayer room each Imam normally performs his worship. Imams will have to indicate their preference for three provinces where they would be willing to lead prayers for inmates.
As no official agreement or law yet regulates in full the relationship between the Italian state and the Islamic communities in the country, the names of Imams on the list will have to be submitted to the Ministry of the Interior so that they may receive official authorization to perform their duties inside prisons.
Lafram said that he was “extremely satisfied” with this agreement with the Italian State.
“With this new protocol, it will be possible to have imams lead prayers in every prison in Italy. This is a sign of the excellent result obtained thus far for a pilot project we have carried out in the past five years in eight Italian prisons,” Lafram said.
Since 2015, some rooms have been made available to Muslim inmates for prayer, but the congregation had nobody to lead prayers or to preach, except during extraordinary times of the year like Ramadan. Due to the COVID-19 emergency, no one from outside was allowed access to prisons in order to prevent the spread infection. As a consequence, no spiritual assistance was available to Muslim inmates even within the few prisons that had a space for prayer and meditation.
“Spiritual assistance to prisoners is necessarily part of the process of reintegration into civil society, as stated in the Constitution of the Italian Republic,” Lafram told Italian news agency ANSA.
"With this agreement, we aim to promote social rehabilitation of the inmate, but also to…avoid any phenomenon of radicalization, which may be triggered by a condition of general resentment towards society," he added.
Lafram expressed his wish that greater attentiveness to the needs of Islamic communities across Italy would eventually lead to formal recognition of the religion in the country. He thanked Minister of Justice Alfonso Bonafede for “showing no prejudices toward the Islamic communities in Italy."
"This is an important step in the context of an ever-greater collaboration between our religious community and the Italian State in the general interest of the country’s welfare,” he said.