ROME – Former Italian deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, a populist and known opponent of Pope Francis and the Italian bishops on the issue of immigration, is going on trial for kidnapping related to his refusal to allow migrants to disembark a ship in 2019.

In February this year, the Senate Chamber of the Sicilian city of Catania authorized the trial against Salvini on charges of aggravated kidnapping for preventing 116 migrants rescued at sea last August to come ashore, leaving them stranded for five days on a crowded ship in the sweltering summer heat with insufficient supplies.

The ship carrying the rescued the migrants, called the Gregoretti, had arrived to the port of Catania July 27, 2019 – a day after Salvini declared that he would not allow any ship carrying migrants to disembark until other European countries volunteered to take them.

Awaiting instructions, the Gregoretti, carrying 132 people, including a woman 8 months pregnant with two other small children, eventually moved onto the NATO Augusta port further down the coast, where on July 29 16 migrants said to be minors were allowed to go ashore.

Two days later, on July 31, Salvini finally announced on Facebook that five other European countries and structures in the Italian Catholic Church had agreed to take on the migrants, meaning they would be allowed to disembark immediately.

In a statement at the time, the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI), announced they would take in around 50 of the migrants, who would be welcomed at the “Mondo Migliore” center near Castel Gandolfo, home to the former papal summer residence and which is roughly a 40min drive from Rome.

The bishops said they, with the help of the Italian branch of international charity Caritas, had committed their own “professional and economic resources” to respond to Salvini’s request “to take charge of hospitality, welcome and assistance, also legal, of these people.”

This move, they said, is part of a wider “collaborative horizon” between the Italian government and the Catholic Church to assist incoming migrants.

In September the public prosecutor’s office in Catania launched an investigation into the incident, asking for Salvini’s removal. However, in December the Catania court of ministers rejected the proposal, sending the request to launch proceedings against Salvini to the Senate.

On Feb. 12, the Senate Chamber ruled for the case to go to trial. Salvini’s preliminary hearing for the trail is scheduled for Dec. 12 in Catania. The woman who was eight months pregnant at the time of the incident and her husband are expected to be called as witnesses.

In addition to his Catania case, Salvini also faces charges of kidnapping in Palermo for another incident from August 2019 involving the Spanish NGO Open Arms, known for its sea rescues, which was green-lighted by the Senate in July.

In this case, 107 migrants rescued by Open Arms were stuck at sea for seven days in the summer heat near the Italian island of Lampedusa before finally being allowed to disembark.

Should Salvini be found guilty, he could face up to 15 years in prison and stripped of his government responsibilities.

Given the involvement of the Italian bishops in the Gregoretti case, it is unknown whether a representative from CEI or Caritas will be called to testify at trial. So far, the bishops have remained silent about the case.

While in office, Salvini butted heads with Pope Francis – a known and vocal advocate of migrants’ rights – and with the Catholic Church in Italy over his strict anti-immigration policies and his use of religious symbols, such as the Bible and the rosary, during political rallies.

Though he never issued a direct criticism of Salvini, Pope Francis has been vocal about his opposition to populism, often comparing the modern populist movement to the rhetoric associated with the Nazis, and has criticized “sovereignism,” an exaggerated emphasis on national sovereignty, as something that could lead to war.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen