As tensions rise in the EU over the migrant crisis, Pope Francis said that those who “close the door” to refugees seeking a safe haven in Europe should ask God's forgiveness.
A day after European interior ministers failed to agree on how to stem the flow of boat migrants across the Mediterranean or house the thousands of new arrivals, Francis demanded greater respect for “our brothers and sisters who seek refuge far from their own lands”.
Speaking during his weekly general audience in St Peter’s Square on Wednesday, he said: “I encourage those who bring them aid and hope that the international community will act in a united and efficient fashion to prevent the causes of forced migration.
“And I invite everyone to ask God's pardon for those people and institutions who close the door to those who are seeking a family, who are seeking to be protected.”
But Salvini, whose tough anti-immigration stance is making him increasingly popular among Italians weary of the persistent migrant influx, said he didn’t need the Pope’s forgiveness.
“How many refugees are there in the Vatican?” Ansa quoted him as saying to the party’s Radio Padania.
“The problem is that the refugees are a quarter of those who arrive (while the rest are economic migrants),” he added.
“We don't need to be forgiven.”
The party’s Lombardy president, Roberto Maroni, has led the campaign in the north to refuse accommodating migrants, warning local mayors and prefects that if they accepted any more “illegal migrants” they would have their funding cut.
Italy has threatened a backlash if other EU states refuse to share the burden of asylum seekers, but even so ministers took no decision to carry out proposals by the European Commission for quotas to redistribute 40,000 refugees.
European leaders swore action after an estimated 800 migrants died in a shipwreck in April, the worst disaster yet in the Mediterranean in a year in which a total of 1,800 people have died trying to cross from Africa and the Middle East on flimsy boats.
In one of the largest pledges of assistance so far, France said on Wednesday it would create an additional 10,500 housing places for migrants.
More than 100,000 migrants have arrived in Europe this year, 60,000 through Italy alone, according to the EU's border agency Frontex.