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Gaddafi causes storm in Italy with Islam comments
(Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's invitation to hundreds of young women to convert to Islam overshadowed a two-day visit to Italy intended to cement the growing ties between Tripoli and Rome.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hailed Italy's relationship with Libya at an evening ceremony on Monday attended by some of the biggest names in Italian business, many hoping to pick up lucrative contracts in the energy-rich North African state.
However, the mercurial leader attracted most attention earlier in the day by summoning busloads of young women hired by a hostessing agency to a meeting at a Libyan cultural center near the Vatican and urging them to convert to Islam.
Several commentators accused Berlusconi of sacrificing principles and dignity for the sake of trade and investment ties with Libya, whose huge sovereign wealth fund has invested heavily in Italy in recent years.
"Ever since Gaddafi arrived here, he's been taking this country for a ride, like buying women," said Stefano Pedica, a senator from the opposition Italy of Values party.
Among business leaders attending the ceremonial events was the head of defense engineering group Finmeccanica, Pier Francesco Guarguaglini, who said "let's hope so," when asked about the prospect of winning business in Libya.
Italian business leaders have spoken favorably of Libya's record as an investor but Berlusconi's close relationship with Gaddafi has led to accusations that economic interests have overridden other concerns, notably human rights.
A British actress was among 500 glamorous women invited to a 'convert to Islam party' thrown by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Italy yesterday.
Clio Evans, 28, was recruited via an agency along with hundreds of other women for the second day running as Gaddafi called on them to embrace Islam during an official visit. Italian politicians and the Vatican condemned the party and branded claims that three women had converted as 'a stunt'.
Farefuturo, a right wing think tank led by Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi's deputy who has had a falling out with him, said in a statement: 'Italy has become the Disneyland of Gaddafi and his senile vanities.
'Sadly that's what the politics of his country has come to - if you pay then you are always right.'
Rome daily newspaper il Messaggero thundered in a front page editorial: 'What would happen if a European leader went to Libya or any other Muslim state and invited its people to convert to Christianity?
'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 and say convert when you don't allow religious tolerance in Libya.'
Last night Gaddafi was due to end his visit to Italy with a spectacular display of riding skills after flying in 30 Berber horses from Tripoli at which Berlusconi will be guest of honour.