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Bigotry mars return of Italy hostage who converted to Islam

ROME – A right-wing lawmaker in Italy was reprimanded Wednesday after he called a young Italian woman who converted to Islam while being held hostage in Somalia a “neo-terrorist.”

Silvia Romano, 24, stepped off an Italian government jet Sunday wearing the green hijab typical of Somali Muslim women. She reportedly told prosecutors in Rome she converted freely during her 18-month kidnapping ordeal, which included being held captive by Somalia's al-Shabab militants.

What should have been a joyful time for Romano and her family has been marred by displays of bigotry and intolerance in Italy, a majority Catholic country where racist incidents have grown amid anti-migrant sentiment.

Police were called to the Romano family home in Milan after a glass bottle was thrown against the residence.

Negative comments on social media have focused on Romano's decision to convert to Islam, as well as her decision to volunteer in the remote part of Kenya where she was abducted in 2018. The government has also been criticized for having apparently paid a ransom to her captors.

Alessandro Pagano, a lawmaker from the anti-migrant League Party, drew jeers and a reprimand from colleagues in the lower house of parliament after he mentioned Romano while complaining about the government’s refusal to reopen churches during the coronavirus lockdown.

Pagano alleged there is a “strong anti-religious bent” in Italy’s current coalition government, adding “and yet when a neo-terrorist comes back ...” His remark was an apparent reference to the decision by the Italian premier and foreign minister to greet Romano at Rome’s Ciampino airport upon her return.

The acting president of the Chamber of Deputies, Mara Carfagna, quickly admonished Pagano, saying: “Using the term ‘neo-terrorist’ is thoroughly improper, especially in this chamber.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Emanuele Fiano went further, blasting Pagano for accusing a victim of a violent extremist group of committing the crime of terrorism.

“She was a prisoner of a band of terrorists! She was a prisoner of a band of terrorists!” Fiano shouted.

Pagano defended himself, saying he quoted from a newspaper.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte was scathing about anyone trying to politically exploit the young woman's experience.

“To whoever's speculating about her, first become a 23-year-old, kidnapped in Kenya, forced to walk nine hours a day, in a forest, by those with Kalashnikovs,'' Conte replied when a reporter asked him about the virulent campaign targeting Romano. ”If you live through this experience, come back" and then give an assessment.

Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist kidnapped in Iraq in 2005, said she also experienced a backlash after she was freed because an Italian agent was killed in a firefight during her rescue.

“Obviously all the polemics begin when it’s a women who is kidnapped,” she told Swiss radio RSI. “No one complains when ransom is paid for a man, or when a man goes to such places. But when it’s a woman, it’s that we went looking for it.”

The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, denounced the “inhuman” attacks on Romano and demanded that her detractors think instead about how much suffering she endured.

“Silvia Romano's freedom should have produced joy and nothing else,” the newspaper wrote Wednesday. “Instead, it is incredible the sequence of reactions and filthy judgments that have rained down from every corner of the country that have dissected what happened to this child, starting from her original choice.”