ROME – It was Holy Thursday 2016 when Pope Francis visited to wash their feet in a symbolic gesture of welcome, but today over 500 immigrants staying at a welcoming center just north of Rome are being forced to leave as the Italian government tightens its grip on immigration.
“The news of the eviction came out of the blue,” said Father Melchor José Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, in an interview with Crux.
“They just began to bring everyone out and to take them to other centers,” he said.
The closing date for the Castelnuovo di Porto welcoming center is set for Jan. 31, and hundreds of immigrants living there have already been moved to other similar places near Rome, including a center at Rocca di Papa that welcomed immigrants stranded at sea aboard the Diciotti vessel.
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The Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, who also leads the country’s right-wing populist party Northern League, issued a decree which, among other things, eliminated humanitarian protections for immigrants who are not granted refugee status.
“In centers such as this, there is only crime and a waste of money,” Salvini told local reporters in the days leading up to the eviction.
The policy has drawn significant blow-back from many in the media, politics and the local church. Italian bishops, cardinals and parish priests have spoken up against the evictions, as well as the closed ports under Salvini and his derogatory language against immigrants.
“After many years of hard work in the local community, it seems absurd to interrupt integration projects that are well underway,” said Bishop Gino Reali of Porto-Santa Rufina in a speech during a peaceful protest against the eviction.
“The method for transferring them seems indecent to me for women, men and children who have at their back a dramatic history. What future do we offer to these people?” he added.
Even Pope Francis, before leaving for World Youth Day celebrations in Panama, met with eight of the young immigrants staying at the center in his residence at Casa Santa Marta at the Vatican Jan. 23.
Religious and lay people working at the welcoming center claim to have learned from the newspapers that the eviction was imminent, and that they were not offered any official communication from the government.
“We are disappointed and concerned. We ask that they not be treated like cattle,” said Father José Manuel Torres, parish priest at the local church of Santa Lucia di Castelnuovo, expressing his concern to local journalists for how the now-homeless immigrants will survive in the winter months.
While Sanchez made clear that “it’s not up to us to judge the actions of the Italian government,” he also underlined that the center in question “works very well and the guests are well integrated into the reality of the country.”
“There are no episodes of violence in the center, and it provides a lot of jobs for the town,” he added.
When it comes to the Castelnuovo center, the arm-wrestling between Francis’s welcoming line toward immigrants and Salvini’s protectionist agenda gets personal.
Three of the members of the newly created Vatican Athletics team, for instance, were residents at Castelnuovo. It was Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who handed them the team shirts flaunting the papal yellow and white colors.
While Gambians Jallow Buba, 20, and Musa Barry, 19, have work contracts that allow them to stay in country, Ansou Cisse, 19, risks having to leave everything behind to return to Senegal.
“When I first heard about the evictions, it hurt me very much,” Cisse told the Guardian Jan 27. “I don’t know where they’ll send me or whether the Vatican will help. After seeing so many horrendous things in Libya, my life changed for the better. Now it feels as if the good experiences I’ve had will be wasted.”
Not only did Cisse bring his enthusiasm for sports to Athletica Vaticana, he also plays on the Castelnuovo soccer team for which he scored two of the winning points during this weekend’s game.
“We hope that Ansou, who has integrated into his soccer team and trains with us, must not have to abandon the center and obtains a permission to stay,” Sanchez, who is also the leader of the Vatican Athletics team, said.