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Rome's first mosque officially opened

By
PETER SHADBOLT

ROME, June 21 -- Europe's largest mosque was inaugurated in Rome Wednesday amid tight security and high controversy as Pope John Paul II called for reciprocal rights of worship for Christians living in Islamic countries. The pope told his weekly general audience the Rome mosque was an eloquent symbol of the respect for religious freedom that exists in the capital of Christianity. 'Following an event as significant as this one, one must unfortunately point out that in some Islamic countries similar signs of recognition for religious liberty are lacking,' Pope John Paul II said. 'On the threshold of the third millennium the world is awaiting those signs,' he added. While the pope did not identify by name any particular Islamic country, Vatican officials are believed to be particularly concerned about Christians living and working in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Sudan. The Rome mosque -- built at a cost of $50 million -- will provide Rome's 35,000 Muslims with a place of worship in a city that boasts 300 Christian churches and a 2,000-year Christian history. The opening ceremony was attended by Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Prince Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the brother of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Italian media said. Saudi Arabia provided $35 million toward the cost of the mosque complex which is composed of a school, library and Islamic cultural center. Some 22 other Islamic countries participated in the project that was first proposed in 1973 and sanctioned by the liberalizing Pope Paul VI who guided the Roman Catholic Church through the groundbreaking changes of Vatican II -- the second Vatican council.

Building work began in 1984 but was dogged by controversy. Environmentalists complained the original plan for an 80-meter (264- foot) minaret would damage the view of the Rome skyline. The minaret was subsequently reduced to half its proposed height. The mosque was designed by Italian architects Paolo Portoghesi and Vittorio Gigliotti, along with an Iraqi colleague, Sami Moussawi. In 1979 the Italian architects received death threats from opponents of the mosque. Construction work was delayed by two years when it was discovered the mosque was not properly aligned to allow worshipers to face Mecca -- the realignment of five degrees added millions of dollars to the final cost of the building. One of the Italian architects, Paolo Portoghesi, said he was influenced by the 17th-century Baroque master Francesco Borromini in his plans for the mosque. 'He was the first person to incorporate some of the lessons of Islam in Christian buildings,' he said.

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