Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's attempt to convert dozens of young women to Islam during a visit to Italy led to an angry reaction from Italian media Monday.

Several commentators accused Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of sacrificing principles and dignity for the sake of trade and investment ties with Libya.

The mercurial Gaddafi invited a large group of young women hired by a hostessing agency to an event at a Libyan cultural centre in Rome Sunday and tried to convert them to Islam.

What would happen if a European head of state went to Libya or another Islamic country and invited everyone to convert to Christianity? asked the daily Il Messagero. We believe it would provoke very strong reactions across the Islamic world.

Press reports said three women had converted, but there was no way to verify if that was true. The event, due to be repeated Monday, followed a similar reception involving some 200 women on a previous visit by Gaddafi to Rome last year.

Ties between Italy and Libya have flourished since a 2008 deal in which Berlusconi agreed to pay $5 billion (3.2 billion pounds) in reparations for Italy's colonial rule over Libya in the early 20th century.

Italy is now Libya's biggest trading partner and buys much of its oil and gas from the energy-rich North African state. Libya is also a big investor in the Italian economy.

But many commentators were not happy.

The national interest does not justify and certainly does not require anyone to agree to playing host to grotesque acts of clowning, La Stampa said in an editorial.

Politicians from the federalist Northern League party, Berlusconi's coalition partners in government, have already voiced concern over Libya's 6.7 percent stake in UniCredit, one of the country's biggest banks.


Italian business leaders have generally spoken very favourably of Libya's record as an investor but Berlusconi's close relationship with Gaddafi has also fuelled accusations that economic interests have overridden all other concerns.

Opposition politicians have focussed in particular on a deal under which Libya has agreed to take back illegal immigrants trying to sail to Italy from its ports.

The centre-left Democratic Party called on Berlusconi to make a statement in parliament after Gaddafi's visit which it said was an opportunity to bring up the issue of human rights.

The two leaders are due to meet later Monday during a program that includes a photographic exhibition, an equestrian display and a formal dinner but there has been considerable uncertainty over the full details of Gaddafi's program.

There has been speculation that Gaddafi or officials travelling with him will meet company heads or other business leaders, with several potential deals in the pipeline.

As well as its shareholding in UniCredit, Libya also owns a stake in oil company Eni and has expressed interest in many more, including power company Enel.

Against this background, many Italians were resigned to Gaddafi's behaviour.

This is the typical kind of stupid thing that Gaddafi says, we should just expect this kind of behaviour, Rome resident Marina Merni told Reuters. I am surprised we treat him as an honoured guest but clearly there is an economic interest.

(Additional reporting by Eleanor Biles; Editing by Jon Hemming)