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Double murder shakes Rome's Chinese Catholics

Chinese in Rome fear for their future livelihoods

Chinese new year celebrations in Rome (photo: Massimiliano Calamelli) Chinese new year celebrations in Rome (photo: Massimiliano Calamelli)
  • by Alessandro Speciale, Rome
  • Italy
  • January 26, 2012
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On the evening of January 4, Zhou Zheng, a 31-year old Chinese immigrant, closed the cafe he ran with his wife in one of Rome’s poorer suburbs. With his nine-month-old daughter in his arms and the day's proceeds - around 10,000 euros (US$13,100) - in his pockets, they headed home.

A few hundred meters down the road, they were stopped by two men wearing crash helmets. According to police, they tried to rob Zheng's wife, but it went wrong. She escaped unhurt but Zheng and his daughter were killed by the same bullet.

This double murder was the latest in a series of violent crimes that has shocked Rome in recent months, weakening the already waning popularity of mayor Gianni Alemanno who, ironically, was elected on a  promise of better security for citizens.

It sparked outrage and consternation among all Romans. More than 6,000 of them crowded the neighborhood's streets for a solidarity march a few days later.

Father Michele Wu Goh, who acts as a mediator between local authorities and the Chinese community - he was called to the hospital after the murder, to try to convince Zheng’s wife to accept food – says he was impressed by the Romans' solidarity after the incident.

But he does not deny that it made many of the Chinese community fearful for their safety.

Born in Malaysia to a Chinese Catholic family, Fr Michele is in Rome to study theology. Together with Fr Giuseppe Zhang from Shanghai, he has been looking after a 200-strong group  of Chinese Catholics since 2010.

They have been given a room in the local diocesan center, where they hold Mass in Chinese on Sundays, as well as meetings and Italian language lessons.

“Half of the group are Catholic since birth, while the other half have converted since moving here,” says Fr Michele. “And the community is growing; seven people are preparing to be baptized at Easter.”

But the shooting of Zhou Zheng and his daughter is never far from his mind. Two members of his community live close to the scene of the murder. “They’re a mixed couple,” he says. “She is from China and he is Italian. They’ve been living there for 30 years but she says now she is so afraid, she'd rather not go out.”

In recent decades, an influx of immigrants from North Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia has changed the face of Rome and other Italian cities. Many of the low-wage jobs have become their preserve. Chinese restaurants, 24-hour shops and hair salons have become a fixture of the city's streets.

There is a mood of dissent among Italians over apparent Chinese indifference to integration in their new country; Rome city council ordered shops in the city's Chinatown  to display signs and banners in Italian, not just Chinese.

This mood has escalated on occasions. In 2007, Milan's Chinatown was the scene of violent clashes when shopkeepers tried to stop police inspections of their shops. These inspections had been demanded by local Italian shopkeepers, who complained that the Chinese were ignoring  regulations.

Franco Pittau, an immigration expert from Caritas, confirms there is a high level of anti-Chinese prejudice. He cites the fact that Zheng was carrying a large sum of money, which was immediately ascribed to under-the-counter activities.

“But access to cash,” he says, “is not necessarily evidence of ties with organized crime”.
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