ROME – As Silvia Romano, a young Italian woman recently released from captivity after spending 18 months in the hands of Islamic extremists in Eastern Africa, faces mounting national criticism for her apparent conversion to Islam, Italy’s top prelate has stressed the need to embrace her as a “daughter.”
In a May 11 interview with Italian regional television station Umbria24, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, archbishop of Perugia and head of the Italian bishops’ conference, said “the return of this girl is the return of a young person who everyone feels in this moment is our daughter.”
“This is young woman who has great grit and this inner strength has certainly saved her,” he said, calling Romano, “a girl driven by strong religious but also humanitarian motives and this helped her to survive.”
Originally from Milan, Romano, 24, was serving as a volunteer in a small impoverished village on the coast of Kenya when she was kidnapped by the Somalia-based al-Shabaab Islamist group in November 2018.
After 18 months of negotiation, Romano was finally released May 8 in Somalia, and arrived in Rome Sunday afternoon. Upon her reentry, she was embraced by her family and greeted by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio.
However, from the second she stepped foot off the plane – a moment that was televised and livestreamed on almost every major news site in Italy – Romano became the source of intense national criticism due to her attire.
She appeared wearing traditional Somalian Islamic clothing, including a green headscarf garment, a color preferred by the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, indicating that she had converted to Islam.
Romano herself confirmed the apparent conversion, telling media that “no one forced me,” and that halfway through her imprisonment, she asked to read the Quran. Her request was granted, and, according to Romano, she underwent a slow conversion listening to her captors describe their culture and their ways.
Since news of her apparent conversion broke, Romano has been the subject of harsh and even violent social media attacks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other online forums, with some even making death threats, and others complaining that Italy has “one more Muslim” and is now presumably out whatever money they might have paid for a ransom.
Major Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera announced in an article that on Monday, the day after Romano’s return, that for the first time they had to deactivate their comments section, because there were too many inappropriate comments to delete one by one.
Father Enrico Parazzoli, pastor of the small Milan parish where Romano’s family attends Mass, said he has also come under fire for ringing his parish bells to celebrate Romano’s departure for Italy after her release.
Speaking to Corriere, Parazzoli said, “They told me that I had turned the bell tower into a minaret, and I received some criticisms from parishioners and friends.”
The problem, he said, “is that the people don’t think, they simplify, and this is not compatible with the complexities of the world.”
Police in Milan are reportedly considering what sort of protection to provide for Romano, who must self-isolate for 14 days due to the coronavirus, in the coming days and weeks. At the moment, several police cars are keeping watch in front of the family home, and officers are stationed at the door.
In his comments to Umbria24, Bassetti did not directly address the criticism directed at Romano, but he insisted that her return ought to be a cause of celebration for everyone, “because she was our daughter who has run enormous dangers, who had courage, and we could embrace her.”
Father Giulio Albanese, a longtime Combonian missionary in Kenya and director of the Italian People and Mission magazine, spoke to Corriere about Romano’s conversion, urging caution on passing rapid judgement.
To be in the hands of al-Shabaab, “is equivalent of Boko Haram in Nigeria. People who make you do all sorts of things,” he said, noting that at one point in his ministry, he himself had been abducted for a few days, and came out understanding how people end up with “broken bones.”
Referring to those complaining that Italy has “paid for a Muslim,” Albanese insisted that given the delicate situation, “it would be appropriate to refrain from any judgement.”
We don’t know what the spiritual and mental conditions are of a young woman who survived a year and a half with people who can kill you. We don’t know how free she was,” he said.
Noting that many people have already deemed Romano’s apparent conversion as the result of Stockholm syndrome – a psychological response in which hostages or abuse victims bond with their captors or abusers – Albanese said it is still too “premature” to tell, and “those who shoot judgements so lightly don’t know what living in Somalia is like.”
“We all remember the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We didn’t care because they weren’t European,” he said. “They were all Christians or animists, forced to convert. Who would dare to treat them with the contempt with which Silvia is now being treated by some?”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen