MILAN (Reuters) – An Italian aid worker, freed at the weekend after being held hostage for 18 months by Islamist militants in Africa, has been deluged with hate mail because she converted to Islam, judicial sources said on Tuesday.
Magistrates have opened an investigation into the abuse to see if charges of aggravated criminal threat can be laid against some of the senders, the sources said.
Silvia Romano was working as a volunteer in an orphanage in a village in southeast Kenya when she was seized by gunmen in November 2018. She was smuggled across the border into Somalia, where she was believed to have been detained by the Islamist group al Shabaab.
Romano, 24, was greeted by the prime minister and foreign minister when she arrived back by plane on Sunday, smiling broadly and wearing a hooded garment that covered her hair.
Although she has not spoken in public about her ordeal, her family have confirmed that she converted to Islam during her imprisonment and has changed her name to Aisha.
Newspapers quoted her as telling officials that she had chosen to become a Muslim of her own free will after reading the Koran and had not been abused by her captors. However, reports of her conversion sparked fury in some circles.
“Islamic and happy. Silvia the ungrateful,” said the front-page headline of right-wing daily Il Giornale on Monday.
A politician from the province of Treviso posted on Facebook that Romano should be hanged. The post was swiftly removed.
Italy is predominantly Roman Catholic and the Church warmly welcomed Romano’s safe return. “At this time, we all feel her to be our own daughter,” said Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti.
Italian media reported that Rome paid a ransom of some 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) to secure Romano’s release. As always in such cases, the government declined to comment.
“Imagine the Islamic terrorists: They have brought home the money, committing a criminal act, and ‘won’ the cultural battle in the name of the Islamic veil and conversion,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right opposition League party.
In an interview with La Repubblica newspaper, a spokesman for al Shabaab, named as Ali Dehere, confirmed a ransom had been paid, but declined to say how much.
“Some will be used to buy weapons, which we need more and more of to fight jihad (holy war). The rest will be used to run the country: to pay for schools, to buy the food and medicine we distribute to our people, to train the policemen who maintain order and enforce the laws of the Koran,” he said.
The spokesman said Romano had converted voluntarily “because she clearly saw with her own eyes a better world than she knew before”.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Giles Elgood)