ROME – A much-watched migrant vessel finally docked at an Italian island Saturday, following two weeks at sea. The captain of the “Sea Watch 3” divided public opinion in Europe when she defied Italy’s populist leader by bringing 40 immigrants to shore, but the Catholic Church is standing firmly by her side.

“I think that human life must be preserved in any way. This must be the North Star that guides us, everything else is secondary,” said Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, in a June 29 press conference.

The Sea Watch 3 NGO migrant vessel spent over two weeks in the Mediterranean Sea carrying more than 40 immigrants and 20 staff members, before German Captain Carola Rackete decided the ship couldn’t wait any longer and docked at Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily, in the early hours of June 29.

The leader of Italy’s ruling right-wing populist party, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, has ordered all Italian ports to close their doors to vessels carrying immigrants in an effort he says to reduce migration flows into the peninsula and to combat human trafficking.

On Wednesday, Salvini said the Sea Watch’s attempt to approach the Italian coast was a “hostile act” and vowed to compel other European countries to take in the immigrants. While the vessel flies the Dutch flag, it’s run by a German NGO.

“I had to dock. I feared that some migrants might commit suicide,” said Rackete in a June 30 video interview with local daily Il Corriere Della Sera, adding that some passengers had tried to cause themselves harm.

“I was afraid. We were taking turns for days, even at night, out of fear that someone might throw themselves into the sea. For those who don’t know how to swim, it means suicide. I feared the worst,” she said.

After ramming patrol boats and docking, Rackete was arrested by Italian police on Saturday and she faces an investigation for favoring illegal immigration. She also risks a fine and the impounding of the vessel, but she said she will own up to the legal consequences of her “act of disobedience and not violence.”

The young captain can rely on a large number of Christian clergy members who’ve offered her support and volunteered to help with the care of migrants aboard the Sea Watch.

Father Carmelo La Magra, the parish priest of Lampedusa, was among those awaiting the docking of the Sea Watch to welcome its passengers. For several nights, La Magra slept on the steps of his parish in a sign of solidarity with the vessel.

“Carola is an extraordinary and determined girl,” said Father Massimo Biancalani, who works in an immigrant center and has had a few feuds with Salvini himself. “I see her as a witness of humanity and law, because there is a law of the sea, a fundamental law of man, that comes before our norms.”

Lutheran Bishop Heinrich Bedfort-Strohm, who heads the Evangelical church in Germany, was said to be “sad and anxious” upon hearing about Rackete’s arrest.

“This woman deserves the Nobel prize,” said missionary Father Alex Zanotelli in an interview with local media on Saturday, “for her courage in challenging an absurd law, which one must disobey because disobeying injustice is a profoundly Christian behavior.”

“The first martyrs died precisely for this reason,” he added.

Archbishop Gian Carlo Perego of Ferrara, former head of the migrant section of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, also made a statement in support of disobedience and compared Rackete to the Italian freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi.

“Disobeying the law to save lives is a Christian principle, and it’s fundamental from a human point of view. It’s what this woman captain has done,” he told local reporters, proposing that the port of Lampedusa be renamed after Rackete.

This is not the first time that the Vatican or Catholic clergy have taken a “rage against the machine” approach in Italy since Salvini consolidated power.

In May, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who distributes charity on behalf of Pope Francis, reconnected the power main to a state-owned building in Rome where more than 430 people live, including more than 100 children.

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Salvini promised to send the cardinal the bill and criticized his illegal behavior, but Krajewski said the real issue was not bringing back water, heating and electricity to families in distress, but that even in the heart of Rome people live this way.

As Rackete prepares to face an inquiry, the question remains of what will happen to the immigrants she led to Italy. Catholic entities have already volunteered to help, and the Federation of Evangelical Churches offered to welcome all of them on their dime.

Meanwhile, world superpowers met in Japan for the G20 in Osaka where Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been enveloped in conversations with at least four countries who have expressed a willingness to welcome the Sea Watch passengers.

Follow Claire Giangravè on Twitter: @ClaireGiangrave


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