Renaissance Masterpieces, Check. Next Mission: Capital of Interfaith Dialogue

Florence, Italy, awards its highest honor to an archbishop, an Israeli rabbi and a Palestinian imam.

AP Photo / The Canadian Press, Alex Panetta

MILAN, Italy – Florence may be best known for its masterpieces of art and Renaissance architecture, but according to its recently elected mayor, Dario Nardella, it now aims to become a world capital for interfaith dialogue as well.

In this spirit, the city, which has a considerable Muslim presence and a small but centuries-old Jewish community, awarded on Tuesday its highest honor – the Fiorino d’Oro, or Golden Coin – to its archbishop, its chief rabbi and its leading imam. Incidentally, the latter two are an Israeli and a Palestinian, respectively.

Archbishop Giuseppe Betori is a very popular figure in Florence, believed to be close to Pope Francis; when the new pontiff was elected last year, the rumor was that Betori would be called to serve in the Vatican, though that didn’t actually happen. Rabbi Joseph Levi, born in Jerusalem to an Italian Jewish family, has long been at the forefront of interfaith dialogue both in Italy and Israel, and attended an interfaith prayer at the Vatican earlier this month. Imam Ezzedin Elzir, a native of the West Bank city of Hebron who immigrated to Italy as a college student, is sometimes referred to by the local press as a positive model of “moderate Islam,” although he is also the president of an Islamic association said to have ties with the Muslim Brotherhood: the Unione delle Comunità e Organizzazioni Islamiche in Italia, one of Italy’s largest Islamic associations.

Earlier in May, Betori, Levi and Elzir cohosted a much-publicized religion festival, in which representatives of all the major faiths came together to discuss commonalities and differences.

In interviews with Haaretz, both Levi and Elzir praised Florence’s long tradition of interfaith dialogue, which dates back several decades, even before the Vatican’s historic overture toward Jews in the early 1980s.

Levi, who heads a Jewish community of about 1,000, said interfaith dialogue is “something this city has in its DNA, since La Pira’s era,” a reference to Giorgio La Pira, who served two terms as mayor in the 1950s and 1960s. La Pira has been beatified, in part due to his commitment to interreligious peace. Levi, a former president of the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, said he was inspired to get involved in bringing different religious together when, at a young age, he witnessed a multifaith prayer in Hebron organized by La Pira in 1969.

“He made me realize how important it was to make an effort in order to empathize with another, which is the key to dialogue both between religions and between nations,” Levi said.

Elzir described Florence as “a positive model” for good neighborly relations among different faiths.

“Here, for more than 20 years, Muslims, Jews and Christians have engaged in a positive dialogue not only among themselves but also with civil society, the secular and even atheists,” he said.

For all the positive talk, though, the province of Florence doesn’t have a single mosque for the 30,000 Muslims, out of a total population of about 1 million, who live here.

Its largest Muslim congregation, headed by Elzir, gathers in a so-called prayer room in Piazza dei Ciompi – a tourist spot because of its flea market, quite close to the city’s Grand Synagogue – which is far too small for its needs. Muslim leaders have been trying for years to negotiate the construction of a more permanent mosque, but have yet to secure approval from local authorities.

Despite the growth of the Muslim population across the country, mosque construction has proven difficult in several Italian cities – Milan, for instance, which has a Muslim population of about 100,000 but also doesn’t have a mosque. According to a recent Pew survey, 63 percent of Italians have a negative view of Muslims.

All the same, Elzir says he is confident he will obtain a permit to build a mosque within the year. “We are discussing it with the authorities; it is our right,” he said. “Moreover, we are doing our best to create a positive climate.”

Levi is also a strong supporter of a mosque in Florence. “To have a decent place to pray is a basic right,” he says.