ROME: Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi’s visit to Rome to mark the second anniversary of a friendship treaty with former coloniser Italy stumbled into controversy on Monday after he said Europe should convert to Islam.
Gaddafi made the comments on Sunday during a lecture to a group of 500 young women hired and paid by an agency to attend his lecture.
“Islam should become the religion of all of Europe,” one of the women quoted Gaddafi as saying in the Italian press.
The agency paid the women, mainly students who hire themselves out for advertising of publicity events, 70 or 80 euros (90 or 100 dollars) to attend and said it would not pay girls who gave their names to the press.
It also told them to dress conservatively for the lectures.
About 200 women on Monday gathered at the Libyan cultural centre in Rome to attend a second lecture.
One of the women present said that Gaddafi had said at the gathering that “women are more respected in Libya than in the West” and offered assistance in finding Libyan husbands.
“Islam is the last religion and if we are to have a single faith then it has to be in Mohammed,” he said, according to the participant.
The lectures are “a new, humiliating violation of Italian women’s dignity,” opposition lawmaker and former health minister Rosy Bindi said.
Gaddafi’s show also caused discomfort within the coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a close ally of the Libyan leader.
“Gaddafi’s words show his dangerous Islamisation project for Europe,” said European MP Mario Borghezio of the anti-immigrant Northern League, junior partner in the coalition, according to Il Messaggero.
Carlo Giovanardi, a government undersecretary, tried to stem the criticism, saying Gaddafi’s words were simply “a remark made during a private meeting.”
Gaddafi, who came to power after the overthrow of the monarchy 41 years ago, landed in Italy on Sunday to mark the second anniversary of a friendship treaty signed with Berlusconi that drew a line under the countries’ bitter colonial-era relationship.
Berlusconi and Gaddafi met privately for 30 minutes on Monday, during which Gaddafi confirmed the policy of opening Libya to Italian investment, a member of Berlusconi’s staff said.
After the meeting, the two men toured a photography exhibition tracing the history of the Italian-Libyan relationship, including the bloody colonial period.
Speaking later alongside Berlusconi at a closing ceremony, Gaddafi suggested that the European Union pay Libya “at least five billion euros a year” to put a halt to illegal migration from its Mediterranean shores.
To do so would be in Europe’s interest, he said, if it wants to head off “the advance of millions of migrants” from Africa.
“There is also desirable immigration,” Gaddafi added. “There are Libyans who have money and I encourage them to come to Italy to invest.”
Berlusconi credited good relations between Italy and Libya “for countering with success the trafficking of illegal migrants from Africa to Europe controlled by criminal organisations”.
Ties between Rome and its former colony have deepened since the signing of the friendship accord, with Italy now the third largest European investor in the North African country.
Italy has said it will invest five billion dollars and build a 1,700 kilometre (1,050 mile) highway in Libya to compensate for its three decades of colonisation from 1911 to 1943.
The two countries also reached an agreement that allows the Italian navy to intercept illegal migrants at sea and return them to Libya, triggering sharp criticism from the United Nations’ refugee agency and human rights groups.
Gaddafi travelled, as usual, with a Bedouin tent for his accommodation which was pitched in the gardens of the residence of the Libyan embassy in Rome.
In a sign of protest against his visit, an opposition party planted a “tent of legality” in front of the embassy.
Gaddafi was set to return to Libya on Tuesday morning, according to sources with knowledge of the visit.