Rome's first and Europe's largest mosque was inaugurated Wednesday in the capital of Roman Catholicism.
The president of Italy, a Saudi prince, Vatican prelates, Arab and Western diplomats, politicians, the mayor of Rome and leaders of Italy's small Jewish community all shared in the long-awaited opening, begun with a reading from the Koran by a 10-year-old Italian Muslim boy.
Moroccan Ambassador Zine Abidine Sebti hailed the mosque as a major step "toward demolishing the campaigns of information which paint Islam as a violent and extremist religion while Islam has proclaimed equality and peaceful coexistence."
The new center is "an important bridge which can consolidate cultural and civic rapport" between Muslims and Christians, said Saudi Prince Salman bin Ab-dulaziz. He called the mosque a "worthy addition to Rome's rich heritage."
In a note of challenge, Pope John Paul II, speaking at his general audience at the Vatican, said Christians in Muslim countries should have the same rights to freedom of worship that Muslims have in much of the West.
He did not name any countries, but Vatican Radio noted that Saudi Arabia, which paid for most of the $50-million Rome complex, denies Christians freedom of worship.
At the ceremony, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro also called for greater religious liberty.
"Freedom of worship is one of the fundamental goals of civilization," he said. "Unfortunately, in some countries there is no such freedom, and thus a basic human right is trod upon."
Monsignor Clemente Riva, the official Vatican representative at the inauguration, said he would like to see a church built in Saudi Arabia "as soon as possible."
"But it would be difficult to do, as all of Saudi Arabia is considered a holy land. They have a different conception of the matter; it is as if they were to ask to build a mosque in the Vatican," he said.
Saudi officials say churches are banned because the Koran says Islam should be the only religion in Arabia. Christians are allowed to worship, but only privately in homes and embassies.
The Rome mosque has encountered numerous troubles since Saudi Arabia's King Faisal first proposed building it 22 years ago.
Construction began in 1984. At one time fears were expressed that the minaret would rival St. Peter's in height. The minaret was held to 128 feet by a court injunction _ less than a third the height of the basilica's dome.
Although there are mosques in Islamic centers and community centers in Rome, the new complex is the first free-standing structure.
Islam is the second-largest religion in Italy, with at least 650,000 believers.