-- STACY MEICHTRY, The Wall Street Journal, August 30 2010.
ROME — Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who holds increasing sway in the Italian economy, upset some Italians by urging conversion to Islam during a three-day visit to the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Col. Gadhafi held a series of private meetings on Sunday and Monday with some 800 Italian women and a small group of young men organized by a hostess agency and paid for by the Libyan government.
Some women who took part in a meeting Sunday told reporters the Libyan leader lectured them on Islam, and then presided over a ceremony in which, they said, a handful of women converted to Islam. The attendees, who were paid to attend the meeting, left carrying bound copies of the Quran that they said were gifts from Col. Gadhafi.
The meetings have become a ritual accompanying Col. Gadhafi's frequent visits to Rome since the signing of a "friendship" accord in 2008. Rome then pledged €5 billion ($6.37 billion) to Tripoli as reparations for Italy's decadeslong occupation of Libya that ended in the 1930s.
Under the treaty, Col. Gadhafi agreed to crack down on undocumented immigrants using Libya as a gateway to Italy and the rest of Europe. Since then, oil-rich Libya has become one of Italy's biggest investors, snapping up stakes in Italian companies such as oil giant Eni SpA. Libya is now the single largest shareholder in Italy's biggest bank, UniCredit SpA, after backing a capital increase that helped to shore up the bank's finances.
It is unclear exactly what purpose the meetings with young women serve. The women are recruited by Rome-based casting agency Hostessweb, and are paid for by the Libyan government, said Alessandro Londero, the agency's president. Mr. Londero, who also attended the lectures, said the Libyan leader addressed the women "a bit like a prophet," urging them to convert to Islam.
The Italian public doesn't like the displays. "Gadhafi needs to show respect. Don't come to Italy and tell Italians and Europeans to convert to Islam," Rocco Buttilgione, president of the pro-Vatican party Union of Christian Democrats, said in an interview with leftist daily La Repubblica.
"Every time Ghadafi returns to Rome it's worse than the last time," said Emma Bonino, a senator from a left-wing opposition party.
Several newspapers, including Italy's largest daily, Corriere della Sera, quoted Col. Gadhafi as telling the women "Islam should become the religion of Europe." La Repubblica headlined a front-page editorial Monday, "A Humiliating Circus."
A spokesman for the Libyan Embassy in Rome declined to comment on whether any conversions took place during the meetings. He also declined to provide a copy of Col. Gadhafi's address to the women, saying that the leader's "speech on Islam was very clear and requires no explanation."
Col. Gadhafi arrived in Rome on Sunday with an entourage aboard a flotilla of four jets that carried hundreds of guests and dozens of purebred Berber horses that paraded during an equestrian exercise Monday. Col. Gadhafi disembarked clad in traditional Bedouin robes and flanked by two of his "Amazon women," personal bodyguards clad in military fatigues and berets.
He took an impromptu stroll through the city's piazzas Sunday evening, snapped by paparazzi as he stopped for gelato and cappuccino. On Monday, he toured a photo exhibit with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media magnate. They were scheduled to dine later with 800 guests.
The Italian women who came to the meetings were recruited over Hostessweb's Internet site and paid between €80 and €150, depending on their proximity to Rome, according to Mr. Londero. Hostessweb then bused the recruits to the Libyan Academy adjacent to the Libyan Embassy. Mr. Londero organized a similar meeting during Col. Gadhafi's last visit, in June 2009, that produced a smaller turnout.
So far, Mr. Berlusconi hasn't made any statements on the meetings. Carlo Giovanardi, an Italian government undersecretary, called Col. Gadhafi's lecture "remarks made during a private meeting."
Col. Gadhafi's financial largesse makes him tough for Mr. Berlusconi's government to criticize, wrote Carmelo Palma, in an editorial published by Fare Futuro, an influential right-wing think tank. "Italy has become Gadhafi's Disneyland," he added.
Write to Stacy Meichtry at email@example.com