The head of the Italian Catholic Church in an interview on Sunday criticised a government proposal to offer courses on Islam in schools as a way of steering young Muslims away from fundamentalist teachings.
"The hour of Catholic religion (teaching) is justified by the fact that it forms part of our history and our culture," Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco told Corriere della Serra newspaper.
"Knowledge of Catholic religious facts is indispensable to the understanding of our culture. It does not seem to me that the planned hour of religion (to teach Islam) corresponds to that reasonable and recognised motivation."
Deputy Economic Development Minister Adolfo Urso has proposed an hour of teaching on Islam in public and private schools as a possible alternative to Catholic courses.
He has said the move would be aimed at keeping young Muslim students away from fundamentalist Islamic schools. The centre-left opposition has welcomed the proposal, as has the speaker of Italy's lower house, Gianfranco Fini.
But an anti-immigrant party allied to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the Northern League, has called it a "provocation."
Foreigners made up 4.2 per cent of students in Italian schools at the end of 2007, with some 37 per cent of them Muslim, according to figures from the education ministry.