Pro-Vatican politicians protest Gadhafi's effort to convert Christians during Italy visit

ROME (AP) — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Premier Silvio Berlusconi mark a friendship treaty between their two countries Monday amid increasing criticism here over Gadhafi's exhortation to Italians to convert to Islam.

Gadhafi arrived in Rome on Sunday and promptly gave a lesson on Islam to a few hundred young Italian women recruited by a modeling agency and paid to attend the lecture. Gadhafi handed out copies of the Quran, urged the women to convert, and participants said three young women converted on the spot.

Left-leaning opposition lawmakers and pro-Vatican politicians alike criticized Gadhafi and the government's failure to protest his behavior.

Rocco Buttiglione, head of the Union of Christian Democrats, commented ironically to La Repubblica daily Monday that if he were to go to Libya to try to persuade Muslims to convert to Christianity, he's sure he wouldn't come back in one piece.

Italy is keen to beef up its sizable energy and construction business presence in Libya; this is Gadhafi's fourth visit to the country in just over a year.

Felice Belisario, a senator from the opposition Italy of Values party, said the government's silence following Gadhafi's encounter with the women was "an unacceptable disgrace."

Berlusconi "is always first to say he's Catholic except when, without any problem, he cuts off our Christian roots in exchange for good business," Belisario quipped in a statement.

Later Monday, Berlusconi and Gadhafi were to inaugurate a photo exhibit and observe an equestrian ceremony — with horses from Italy and Libya — to commemorate the second anniversary of a treaty in which Italy agreed to pay Libya $5 billion as compensation for its 30-year occupation.

As part of the deal, Libya agreed to crack down on the thousands of African migrants who set off from Libyan shores for Italy. The Italian government has begun returning those found at sea to Libya without screening them first for asylum, prompting criticism from human rights groups.

Local Amnesty International officials say they want human rights in general to be discussed when Berlusconi meets Gadhafi on Monday. Amnesty has denounced the use of torture, the death penalty and the lashing of women in Libya.