Italian politicians and media expressed outrage this week over a "convert-to-Islam" party held in Rome by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, complaining that the religious tolerance he found near the Vatican does not exist in Tripoli.
However, many other Italians appeared resigned to tolerating the Libyan leader's antics during an official state visit in which he asked the European Union for five billion euros ($6.36 billion) to fund an effort to fight illegal immigration.
The visit, which marked the second year of an economic agreement with Italy, was celebrated Monday with Gaddafi hosting a “convert-to-Islam” bash at a Libyan cultural center near the Vatican, the fourth such event he hosted this year.
Some 500 actresses and other beautiful young women were hired for the party through the HostessWeb agency, each being paid 70 euros a day for her “expenses.” Although some media reported that three of the women had converted a day earlier, it was impossible to verify the report.
The visit was capped Tuesday night by an equestrian event, for which Gaddafi flew in 30 Berber horses and riders from Tripoli. Italian mounted police also participated in the exhibition, at which Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was guest of honor.
The scene was much the same during a previous Gaddafi visit to Rome last year, according to the Reuters news agency. This year's spectacle of hundreds of women being exhorted to convert to Islam led to much criticism from both media and right-wing opposition parties in Italy, as well as some from Berlusconi's own center-right camp.
Center-right MP Rocco Buttiglione, a politician with close ties to the Vatican, complained to Reuters, “What would happen if one went to Tripoli and invited people to convert? I bet they wouldn't come back in one piece. It's amazing that the government has made no official comment on this. Gaddafi needs to have more respect. You can't come to Italy or Europe and say 'convert' when you don't allow religious tolerance in Libya.”
Rome daily newspaper Il Messagero demanded in an editorial, “What would happen if a European head of state went to Libya or another Islamic country and invited everyone to convert to Christianity? We believe it would provoke very strong reactions across the Islamic world.”
Others, including opposition politician Stefano Pedica of the Italy of Values party, objected simply to Gadaffi's general behavior: “Ever since Gadaffi arrived here, he's been taking this country for a ride, like buying women.”
Most Italians, however, appeared resigned to the Libyan leader's eccentricities, including his penchant for sleeping in the tent he travels with whenever he visits abroad. “We should just expect this kind of behavior,” Rome resident Marina Merni told Reuters. “I am surprised we treat him as an honored guest, but clearly there is an economic interest.”
Following a 2008 agreement by Berlusconi to pay Libya $5 billion in reparations for Rome's early 20th century colonial rule over Libya, Italy became the country's biggest trading partner.
At present, Libya holds a 6.7 percent stake in UniCredit, one of Italy's largest banks, a stake in the nation's oil company, Eni, and is now seeking to buy shares in Italy's power company, Enel, as well as others.