By AFP (Source: Cnews)
ROME - Libyan leader Moamer Gadhafi's visit to Rome to mark the second anniversary of a friendship treaty with former colonizer Italy stumbled into controversy Monday after he said Europe should convert to Islam.
Gadhafi made the comments on Sunday during a lecture to 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 Gadhafi 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 lecture.
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 Gadhafi 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.
Gadhafi's show also caused discomfort within the coalition of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a close ally of the Libyan leader.
"Gadhafi'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 Gadhafi's words were simply "a remark made during a private meeting."
Gadhafi 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.
Ties between Rome and its former colony have deepened since the signing of the 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 colonization from 1911 to 1943.
The head of Italy's energy giant ENI, Paolo Scaroni, called Libya the "pupil of my eyes", saying the company would invest 25 billion euros in the country.
Libya also owns about six percent of Italy's largest bank, Unicredit.
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.
A representative of the Italian bishops' conference, who was set to meet Gadhafi late Monday, said he would raise the issue of migrants detained in Libya with him.
"I find it worrisome that we don't know anything about what happens to those desperate African people arrested by the Libyan police," Domenico Mogavero said.
To mark the anniversary, Gadhafi and Berlusconi were due Monday to tour a photography exhibition tracing the history of the Italian-Libyan relationship, including the bloody colonial period, officials said.
They were also expected to be among around 800 spectators at an equestrian show at the Tor di Quinto cavalry school in the north of the capital.
The Libyan colonel, who came to power after the overthrow of the monarchy 41 years ago on Wednesday, brought with him for the occasion 30 thoroughbred Berber horses and their riders, who flew in on a special plane.
He and Berlusconi are also expect to share iftar, the meal breaking the day's fast during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.
Gadhafi 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.