Bishops and politicians clash over migrants

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Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the increasingly popular Northern League. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP
08:22 CEST+02:00
It has been a hot summer in Italy and tempers have started to fray, even in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church.

Confronted by what they see as attempt to make electoral capital out of the Europe-wide migrant crisis, bishops are declining to turn the other cheek, engaging in a war of words with some of the country's leading politicians.

After a visit to Jordan, a country of 6.5 million people that currently accommodates two million refugees, Nunzio Galantino could not contain his anger at those who maintain that Italy cannot accommodate any more asylum seekers fleeing poverty, persecution or war in the Middle East and Africa.

"Threepenny touts who will say the most extraordinarily stupid things for a handful of votes," was the damning verdict of the Secretary General of the Italian Conference of Bishops.

The salvo was aimed primarily at Matteo Salvini, the populist leader of the increasingly popular Northern League who advocates sending all the migrants washing up on Italy's shores back to Libya, but also former clown Beppe Grillo's populist Five Star movement, which is also demanding a "tightening of the screw" on asylum requests.

The Church remains an influential voice in Italy and the issue of immigration is a sensitive one: after a record number of migrant arrivals by boat in 2014, this year has already seen 104,000 people arrive at the country's southern ports, most of them rescued at sea by the country's own naval and coastguard ships.

Salvini did not take Galantino's onslaught lying down, suggesting the Vatican could take in the migrants itself and implying that the Church was somehow benefiting from the crisis.

"Those who defend this clandestine invasion that is destroying Italy, either don't have a clue or they are making money from it," he said, before ironically asking: "Italy's a Republic isn't it, or is it still under Vatican rule?"

'Horrid electoral war'

As the barbs flew back and forth, Pope Francis discreetly ordered a lorry load of pasta, milk, rice and biscuits be delivered to a reception centre for migrants close to one of Rome's main rail stations.

And Angelo Bagnasco, the chair of the Italian bishops' conference, pointedly organised a meeting with migrants housed in a seminary in his Genoa diocese, using the occasion to urge the United Nations to "confront this human tragedy in a decisive and serious manner."

Summing up the frustration felt by Catholic leaders, Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Sant'Egidio religious community, said politicians were failing to see the big picture.

"Political factions are involved in a horrid electoral war, reducing what is a complex and unstoppable global phenomenon to the simple question of arrivals in Italy," he said.

This week has seen a resumption of hostilities with Galantino denouncing the country's political class as a "harem of deceitful cronies" and warning that "saving migrants at sea is not enough to earn a clear national conscience."

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Interior Minister Angelino Alfano was moved to defend the government's handling of the crisis.

"We are saving lives and we repatriate those who are not fleeing war or persecution," Alfano said. "We have a different job to do than the Church."

Sergio Mattarella, Italy's devout president, tried to build bridges this week, saying the country would be judged by the way it handled the crisis.

"The humanity we display in the reception of desperate refugees, the intelligence with which we address migrant fluxes and the determination with which we fight people traffickers must be our way of demonstrating to the world the quality of our democratic life," Mattarella said.

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