Italy has ratified an agreement with Qatar that will give the Gulf country an official platform to fund organisations and build mosques, a move that has bitterly divided politicians in Rome.
Warnings that ratification of the accord would let Doha use its resources to extend its influence in Italy, and that of its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, have raised concerns about the deal.
Italy was in the depths of a financial crisis when it signed the last accord with Qatar in 2012 and it has not escaped attention that the government of Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, has pushed forward the current pact as the economy faces collapse amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That deal triggered a wave of Qatari funding to Italian organisations, much of it directed to the Unione delle Comunita e Organizzazioni Islamiche, which acts as an umbrella for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated mosques in the country.
According to Qatar Papers, a book that documented Qatari fund transfers to Europe, tens of millions of euros were directed to mosque-building projects and community organisations in places such as Milan, Bergamo and Sicily.
The book quotes fund-raising letters for Italian projects from Doha-based Yusuf Al Qaradawi, who spoke on Italian television as far back as 2006, about his dreams for the “conquest” of Rome. “This will be done through preaching and ideology,” he said.
Italian opposition parties hit back against the ruling left-wing coalition’s decision to push through the accord for the government to enable Qatari funding of religious bodies, Arabic language-learning centres and cultural exchanges.
Giovanbattista Fazzolari told a Senate session that Doha’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and its links to radicalisation and terrorism means this was not a standard “cultural exchange” package.
"Parliament opens the doors of Italy to the Islamic fundamentalist propaganda of Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood to contaminate us through student exchanges, university exchanges, the possibility of paying scholarships, the possibility of establishing university collaborations, of teaching Arabic in Italy," the Brothers of Italy senator said.
Matteo Salvini, of the right-wing Lega party, also spoke against the measure, as did members of Silvio Berlusconi’s centrist faction. Mr Salvini highlighted links between Qatar and Iran in his speech.
Fears of Qatar's growing influence were also voiced by Isabella Rauti, another senator hostile to the accord, who said Qatari officials were coming "to Italy not to finance charity".
The vote came as Italian politicians sought answers over Qatar’s involvement with Turkish intelligence in freeing the Italian hostage Silvia Romano, an aid worker held by Al Shabab in Somalia.
Last year there was a fierce reaction to news that former prime minister Matteo Renzi had met Qatar’s leadership to discuss the purchase of Roma football club.
The influential columnist Alessandro Sallusti echoed the warnings in the Qatar Papers about his country. "Doha also finances the Muslim Brotherhood," Mr Sallusti wrote in Il Giornale. "Qatar Charity is the fund with which Doha finances mosques and cultural centres abroad. Not exactly a circumstance to be taken lightly.
“On Al Jazeera, space is given as preacher to Imam Yusuf Al Qaradawi, the one who in 2006 supported the duty for Muslims to conquer Rome without bombs but with proselytism and cultural influence. At the basis of this situation, Qatar continues to be very active in Italy and to find support in various political forces.
“This on the foreign policy front and especially on the Libyan dossier (where Doha actively supports [Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez] Al Sarraj), cannot fail to have repercussions.”