ROME – One of the defining characteristics of this pontificate is its strong defense of immigrants, upheld throughout the Church from the very top down to the local parishes and Catholic associations around the world.

While experts gathered in Rome for a secular conference on immigration certainly recognized the fundamental impact of the Church, they also acknowledged that immigrants, while welcome in most Catholic communities in Italy, are often still kept at a distance and struggle to become the “flesh and blood” of Catholic congregations.

In principle, the situation in Italy is no more or less significant, from a Catholic point of view, than anywhere else in the world. In reality, however, because Italy is seen as “the pope’s backyard,” how his message is refracted here carries outsize importance in terms of global Catholic attitudes.

Despite what most Italians believe, more than half of all immigrants coming to the country are Christians. Just like in the United States, immigrants and refugees living in Italy are widely accepted in Catholic churches and assemblies but – also in light of language barriers – are often not fully included into the fabric of the community, and practice and celebrate their faith separately.

“Catholic immigrants are welcome. Ecclesial institutions give them space such as unutilized churches and spaces in the normal parishes where there is Church sharing,” said Marurizio Ambrosini, an Italian expert on immigration, in an interview with Crux.

“But they are mostly the object of help,” he added. “They have spaces no doubt, but they have not yet become flesh and blood in the Italian Church.”

His remarks took place on the margins of a conference in Rome titled Immigrant and Refugee Law in Italy: Between Formality and Efficiency, which was promoted by the Italian National Council for Economics and Labor, or CNEL, made up for the most part by social entities and labor unions that basically constitute a third parliamentary house. When founded, the CNEL was closely tied to Caritas Italy, the Church’s official charitable arm, and Migrantes, a Catholic foundation aimed at evangelizing, promoting and educating immigrants at a diocesan level, but it now acts as an independent organism.

Ambrosini, who works with CNEL, pointed to the separation between immigrants and the general community as a “weak point” in the Italian Church’s dossier on immigration.

In the expert’s opinion, immigrants are often left without a voice when it comes to taking part in the Italian discourse surrounding immigration. He said it’s others, including the Catholic Church, who pick up the microphone to defend their rights.

In January, the Archdiocese of Milan made an attempt to foster the voice of immigrants in the community by announcing a synod aimed at listening to their needs and concerns, with the goal of transforming churches and parishes in such a way as to better meet their needs.

“It’s hard for someone who doesn’t experience the situation to explain immigration,” said Teodoro Ndjock Ngana, an author and activist working for the NGO Kel’Lam, which fosters education and inclusion for immigrants.

According to Ndjock Ngana, who emigrated from Cameroon and moved to Italy nearly 40 years ago, both political and ecclesiastical authorities in Italy hesitate to include immigrants in management situations, resulting in their being “put at the margins of actually handling immigration.”

He emphasized that the Church is a powerful, if not essential, ally when it comes to promoting the welcoming of immigrants and providing for their basic needs.

Ndjock Ngana remembers that when he arrived in Italy, the Catholic Church was the only entity providing food, shelter and health supplies for immigrants, and added that today it’s the only institution in the country “saying something about immigration, something that might be helpful for immigrants.”

The activist remarked that the Church knows more about the issue than Italy’s politicians, who in the midst of upcoming and highly divisive elections March 4 have taken up the fiery narrative of an “immigrant invasion.”

“There is no invasion,” said Paolo Iafrate, a law professor at the Tor Vergata University in Rome, who was presenting his book, which gave its name to the conference.

“Immigration is essential in our country, because it contributes to the pension payments and it supports our public spending.”

The immigration lawyer observed that it’s a common misconception to connect immigration with crime rates, something often reiterated in Italy’s political discourse, and his book shows that such a connection is not confirmed by the data.

According to Ugo Melchionda, President of the Idos Study and Research Center – a small think tank with no political affiliation that has been tackling immigration issues in Italy for the past 15 years – the only real emergency in Italy is the narrative that is being told by politicians and media on immigrants.

“These [immigration] numbers are compatible with the possibility of working together between us, countries of origin and immigrants,” he said in an interview with Crux. “It’s not necessary to refer to a narrative of ‘invasion.’ This is the real emergency: those who talk about immigration like something that will overcome us. It’s not true.”

Melchionda stated that political parties tend to forget that while Italy faces many issues, especially the mounting unemployment and government debt, statistical data shows that immigration is not among them.

The real achievement of the Church is at a political level, he said, where in his opinion it has countered the most extreme fringes of racism and extremism.

“The Catholic Church is very important in extreme cases,” Melchionda said. “For example, the whole battle brought forth by Pope Francis to fight racism, to fight prejudice against refugees, asylum seekers but putting the churches at their disposal and inviting parishioners to welcome them in their homes. And also, by going personally to greet [immigrants] and promoting human corridors.”

Melchionda said the most impactful result of Francis’s campaign has been in promoting a paradigm to welcome, protect, promote and integrate immigrants.

“No pope, I think, before him had this ability to synthetize the Church’s approach in just four key words,” he added.

The weakness though lies in the last point, integration, where even the Church struggles to have Christian immigrants feel like they are an important and valued part of the congregation.

“What we’re witnessing today is an integration process that is not completed,” Melchionda said.

Ambrosini agrees, stating that the Church “is one of the relevant actors in the governance of immigration in Italy.” Yet, at a grassroots level, these messages have been met with a certain degree of resistance.

Since 1998, when Italy began experiencing a rapid growth in the number of immigrants, the government has applied a series of regulations – seven to be exact – that regularized illegal immigrants, making it the number one country in Europe in this aspect.

But, Ambrosini adds, “fake news on immigration is very popular in this country,” and Italians tend “to have a short memory” when it comes to the actual numbers of illegal immigrants — which, he said, can translate into their views of the pope.

“Even in Italy, Pope Francis is under attack in certain circles, including Catholic ones, and one of the accusations against him is an excessive openness and sympathy toward immigrants and refugees,” he said.

Ultimately the issue lies, according to the immigration expert, “with those Catholic Italians who listen more to their television and its aggressive views rather than their pastors.”

For the veteran immigrant Ndjock Ngana, who has experienced first hand the many phases of welcome and integration in Italy, education is the only real solution and one where he recognizes the Church has been actively involved.

“If we don’t raise children to understand immigration, then they will never know, and when they grow up they’ll act as if it’s something that doesn’t concern them,” he said.