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A rising tide of Muslims in Italy puts pressure on Catholic culture

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In the Italian capital's abandoned Tiburtina railway station, clothes dangle from makeshift washing lines, and families camp out without running water or electricity - many waiting as long as 14 months to see if Italy will accept them as asylum seekers.

"I've been here a long time," says John Laki, who is still living on the weed-covered tracks more than five years after arriving from Sudan. "I keep trying to find a job. But it's always complicated. They gave me asylum, but they don't give me any money. How can a human being build their life [this way]?"

The 400 squatters in the station in central Rome - dubbed "Hotel Africa" - are a reminder of Italy's difficulty in taking in the waves of migrants escaping wars and dictatorships or seeking work in Europe.

While immigrants live largely apart from mainstream Italian society - doing manual or factory work or scraping a living peddling trinkets or vegetables on the streets - the influx of foreigners in recent years, many of them Muslim, is rapidly changing the cultural makeup of this Roman Catholic country.

The tension between the two worlds was apparent last month in an uproar over school crucifixes, which echoed cultural struggles in France and Germany, where the wearing of head scarves in schools and the use of ID cards are burning issues.

Italians were outraged when a judge ruled that crosses should be removed from classroom walls out of respect for Muslim pupils. In the normally quiet town of Ofena in central Italy, parents held a "hands off our crucifix" vigil outside the elementary school in question. The Education Ministry managed to win a temporary injunction against taking down the crosses pending a hearing next week.

While Italy is officially secular, more than 80 percent of Italians declare themselves Catholic. Legislation from the 1920s says crucifixes should be in every school, but some argue the subsequent secularization of the state makes the laws defunct.

The order to have them removed - a victory for the media-savvy Muslim, whose children attend the Ofena school - may have opened a legitimate debate, but it offended many Italians who say their national identity was being attacked.

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