CATANIA, Italy — On a sunny afternoon in Sicily, tourists flocked to iconic Catholic attractions like the Cattedrale di Sant'Agata, the Monastery of San Nicolò l'Arena and the San Benedetto church, all of which were built hundreds of years ago.
A few blocks away, a Muslim house of worship expanded last year was also full of people who had just arrived in Italy. None of them were tourists.
The majority of those praying or resting at the Mosque of Mercy, located at the heart of Catania, were migrants who have come to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea on small, overcrowded fishing boats. Some 43,000 arrived in Italy by sea in 2013, including over 11,300 Syrians fleeing the violence in their country. And since the beginning of this year, the number of migrants crossing the Sicilian Strait has significantly increased.
“When I see the refugees that come here it breaks my heart,” said Ismail Bouchanafa, director of the Mosque of Mercy. “We have had here some Syrians who were so traumatized that they were afraid of the dark and they would pee on themselves out of fear.”
Bouchanafa, who fled Morocco 25 years ago and settled in Sicily, said Catania’s reception of migrants was the main motivation for building up the mosque last year, which grew from an underground prayer room to a three-floor Islamic center. It has helped what Bouchanafa said were “many hundreds” of migrants.
Some of the migrants apply for refuge in Italy, while others use the Sicilian coast as a landing point on their way to European countries with a more efficient asylum system and more welcoming labor market. Either way, a visit to Catania — Sicily’s second largest city and main transport hub — is likely.
The mosque’s large prayer room is covered with carpets and the walls are decorated with scriptures from the Quran. In the reception corridor there are shelves full of worn-down shoes of the people praying inside. On the top floor is a study space for children and for those who want to learn Arabic. Twice a month, free meals are offered, and in the corner of one of the rooms is a pile of mattresses and blankets.
“According to the law, we are not supposed to let people sleep here,” Bouchanafa said. “But it happens sometimes because people come late in the evening, and they really need a place. So we give them food and a mattress and some clothes.”
Most of the migrants are Syrians, but there are many from the Maghreb and from sub-Saharan countries. According to Bouchanafa the welcoming reception is not only for Muslims. Many Christian Africans also come by.
In the sunset hours, several men were praying in the main hall, while others were standing by the gate and talking. One of them was Fandiye, a 19-year-old from Mogadishu, who left his family behind and came to Italy last summer.
“When I was on the boat (from Libya to Italy), all I was thinking was, ‘Allah will save us,’” said Fandiye, who did not want to be fully identified. “In Somalia, it is a war, many people flee. Some go to Nairobi, and some go to Italy.”
He said that he has requested asylum in Italy and his application is under review. In the meantime, he works in random jobs whenever he can. He sleeps in an apartment with other Somalian migrants, which he said he had met in the mosque. He hopes to attend university in Italy.
Outside the Mosque of Mercy, bells from nearby churches and cathedrals are frequently heard. The mosque does not have a muezzin and there are no calls to prayer.
Bouchanafa said that kind of presence would be inappropriate in such a Catholic city. He said he has good relations with the community and has not had any problems with neighbors, but also that Italians tend to hold negative stereotypes about Muslims.
“Before we renovated, the mosque was underground, so people did not see it and they were intimidated by the unknown,” Bouchanafa said. “Now it is nice and welcoming. People are not afraid to be near it, to enter. The gate is always open.”
Bouchanafa, a father of three whose work at the mosque is voluntary, said he is well aware of the importance of keeping the place open, made possible through donations from Muslims in Italy and other countries.
“They have problems in their countries but it is not only their problem, it is a problem for all of us,“ Bouchanafa said. “As fellow humans we must provide them what we can.”