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ROME – Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni spoke at a book presentation on the tenth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election Monday, praising the Argentine pope on several fronts and pledging Italy’s support for the Holy See to negotiate a ceasefire in Ukraine.
However, despite her words of admiration and support, Meloni also stood her ground on the migration issue, defending a strict anti-migrant policy known to be at odds with Pope Francis’s policy of welcome and integration.
In her remarks, Meloni recalled the night of Pope Francis’s election to the papacy on March 13, 2013, when he told faithful that his fellow cardinals had gone to the “ends of the earth” to find their new pope.
With this line, Pope Francis “gave us a preview” of his entire papacy, and “perhaps the most distinct trace of his papacy…his most marked aspect is precisely people and places that are far away, on the physical and existential peripheries,” she said.
Meloni then reflected on Pope Francis’s ten year-pontificate and the role his words and teachings have had on her daily work as a politician and now as Italy’s first woman prime minister.
She spoke alongside Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the March 13 presentation of a new book written by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close friend and aide of Pope Francis who has interviewed him several times and travels with the pope on every international trip.
The new book, titled, The Atlas of Francis: Vatican and international politics, explores Francis’s foreign policy amid an increasingly interconnected yet polarized world divided by “a third world war in pieces.”
The book highlights the words and gestures that underline what Spadaro describes as Pope Francis’s “diplomacy of mercy.”
Spadaro in opening remarks at Monday’s presentation called Francis a spiritual leader with a “specific diplomacy” and “perhaps the only figure of moral leadership at a global level.”
The basis of Pope Francis’s political advocacy “is fraternity,” promoting a world where international relations are built on friendship, he said, saying, “perhaps this is what Francis keeps alive in a world at war in pieces.”
At a time when many leaders confuse the word victory with peace, choosing “victory to the point of forgetting peace and letting it disappear from the world,” the pope, Spadaro said, reminds the world that “we all belong to the same family.”
Meloni praised Pope Francis’s approach to moments of crisis, saying that for him, “crisis in itself is not negative,” but rather, every moment of crisis is an opportunity.
Crisis can be good because it “makes you choose,” rather than staying stagnant, she said, and pointing to an image in Spadaro’s book, said taking advantage of moments of crisis means sifting through the grain, “choosing, separating the good grain, the clean grain, to then grind it and make flour.”
To this end, she lamented Italy’s lack of investment in the industrial sector and its lack of a clear economic policy, as well as Italy’s “fluctuating positions” on foreign policy, saying, “today I am grateful for the ability to be forced to make choices,” and defended some of her more controversial decisions, such as her government’s decision to stop using Russian gas.
The decision was heavily debated, she said, saying her government could have chosen a different course of action “and had more of a consensus, but it wouldn’t have been the right choice.” Politics, she added, also “has the responsibility of saying no when needed.”
In terms of the ongoing energy crisis, Meloni said, “we are trying to transform a crisis into an opportunity,” and said Italy has an advantage.
“Today Europe has a problem of energy security and Italy has an advantage, its geo-strategic position,” she said, saying her country can become “the entry point of energy into Europe” through cooperation with Mediterranean and African nations.
Meloni reflected on what she said was Pope Francis’s insistence on “mercy as the fulcrum of political action,” saying her government wants a “non-predatory approach” to Africa which she believes falls within a perspective of mercy.
“Africa is not a poor continent … it is an exploited continent,” she said, noting that Africa has vast wealth and natural resources which are often pillaged by foreign companies who invest little in return. She argued that Italy is pursuing a policy in which “(we) don’t go to extract what is theirs without leaving anything behind,” but rather creates wealth for the continent.
To this end, she touched on the sensitive issue of migration, one of her most controversial positions and one which is at odds with Pope Francis’s own policy.
Meloni said she has met many Africans over the years who insist they do not want to leave their homes, countries, or continent, but are forced to because of war and poverty.
“We can do a lot more, and because of this I think it’s a more human approach…a more merciful approach,” she said, noting that Pope Francis often insists on the point that “everyone has an inalienable dignity.”
Respecting this dignity, she said, means “I am also responsible for their development,” which in Meloni’s view means welcoming and promoting Africans “in their own land,” rather than allowing the continent to be emptied of its resources and people due to migration.
Meloni, whose government has repeatedly pledged to increase pushbacks of migrant ships and to implement strict vetting processes in migrant departure points for who is allowed to migrate and who doesn’t meet the necessary requirements, defended her position.
“The more people leave, the more people put themselves in the hands of cynical traffickers and the more there is the risk that something will go wrong: I don’t think this can ever be the right, humane, and responsible way to deal with this matter,” she said.
“Perhaps it would be easier to put one’s head in the sand, let the mafia decide who should come to us, let only those who have the money to pay those mafia come to us,” she said, and also pointed the finger at the Wagner group, a network of mercenaries fighting for Russia in Ukraine, saying they are trying to gain a hold in Africa.
Noting that many African migrants who come to Europe do not end up having the better life they were promised, but are often forced into prostitution or are exploited by organized crime, Meloni acknowledged that she is criticized for her views on migration, but said, “my conscience is intact.”
Spadaro touched on the issue of migration in his own remarks, noting that the Mediterranean “is becoming a great cemetery,” and calling the migration crisis one of the biggest global challenges that needs to be addressed.
This issue of migration and shipwrecks in the Mediterranean are urgent “now more than ever,” yet it faces “the usual from the international community,” he said, insisting that everything possible must be done to ensure “that these trips of hope never again become trips of death.”
Speaking to journalists after the event, Parolin said migration is a “very, very complicated topic,” and that he and Meloni spoke about it briefly during a private conversation after the presentation.
“I think that the problem is of translating into state politics the orientations that the pope offers in this field, according to those four themes he has chosen as basic indications for the handling of this topic,” Parolin said, referring to the pope’s migration buzzwords welcome, protection, promotion and integration.
Parolin said he and Meloni specifically discussed the influx of migrants into Italy, and therefore Europe, and he advocated for the opening of humanitarian corridors, saying this is a position he and Meloni’s government share.
Responding to Meloni’s assertion that her position is completely in line with the pope’s insistence on mercy, despite differing drastically from his approach to migration, Parolin said that he “won’t judge her disposition because it’s not up to me to make judgements.”
He noted however that European migration policies, including that of the Italian government, are often “policies of containment and restriction, therefore policies of repulsion.”
“It is needed to pass from these policies to a policy of open welcome, which then must find concrete manifestations in the various legislative activities,” Parolin said, lamenting that the usual European position is “to hold back and hold back, and never to be welcoming or to receive.”
In her remarks, Meloni also applauded the repeated offer by Pope Francis and his top aides, including Parolin, to help negotiate a peace deal in Ukraine, voicing her belief that the Holy See “is most disposed to assist in a negotiated solution because it doesn’t have other interests, it doesn’t have international interests.”
“I truly support this effort,” she said, saying, “the Holy See can absolutely count on our support.”
She also applauded Pope Francis for his words on Europe, often lamenting that the continent has forgotten its founding values and urging Europe’s leaders to return to the continent’s roots. “The idea of the European Union as a club, with series A and series B…is a distorted image of Europe,” she said.
Meloni also praised the pope’s commitment to shedding a light on anti-Christian persecution, lamenting that “it’s a theme which is almost never spoken about” in international politics. It is perhaps “the biggest” persecution happening right now, but “is the one least spoken about,” she said.
Noting that she has met with victims of Boko Haram violence in Nigeria, with militants kidnapping, raping, and forcing conversions on their prisoners with the threat of death, Meloni said she was deeply moved by these encounters, but “We don’t know these stories, no one is telling them.”
She praised Pope Francis’s attention to this problem in his speeches and during international trips, including his March 2021 visit to Iraq, making him the first pope to ever set foot in the country.
On Christian persecution, political correctness is another problem Meloni highlighted, saying it is wrong for a majority Christian nation, where most Christians are Catholics, to refrain from using Christian symbols for fear of offending others, or accepting Christian symbols but objecting to anything specifically Catholic.
Negating one’s Christian identity “is not a way to get anywhere,” she said, stressing the need to care for one another rather than fearing one another. She praised the “courage and strength” with which she said Pope Francis has reflected on the issue, saying, “even among politicians it’s a very important element.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen