ROME – For months the Vatican waited, silently, to see how to engage Italy’s new populist government. For months the Italian bishops offered support and patience as political parties clumsily attempted to create a new government. Promising vigilance, for months Italy’s high-ranking clergy looked for points of dialogue, but also contrast, with the country’s infant leadership.
Finally, the wait is over and – unsurprisingly – the battle between the Church and Italy’s ruling coalition of right-wing populists, Northern League, and anti-establishment party, Five Star Movement, will be centered around immigration.
“Beating your fists on the table is absurd before endangered lives and the international law that imposes the rescue of people at sea,” said Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, president of Italian Caritas and head of the Italian bishops’ conference’s immigration committee.
“Politics must be the ability to dialogue and search for the common good, safeguarding human rights above all else,” the archbishop of the Southern Italian town of Agrigento said, before adding that “politics must go back to knowing its job.”
The “Sarajevo” for the battle between Italian bishops and Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, is Aquarius, a rescue boat that was carrying more than 600 immigrants and refugees, including seven pregnant women and 123 unaccompanied minors.
The rickety boat, which many times has delivered immigrants from the African coasts to Europe, was told to stay put by Italian maritime authorities. It was operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which, in a tweet Monday, said that they were forced to stay put between Italy and the island of Malta.
“That’s it. Saving lives is a duty, transforming Italy into a gigantic refugee camp isn’t. Italy has stopped bowing its head and obeying, this time there are those who say no #closetheports,” wrote Salvini in a tweet.
Both Malta and Italy refused to welcome the boat until the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared that the port of Valencia was open, after hours of political deadlock. Two Italian navy ships escorted Aquarius to its destination on Tuesday. The event shed light on several underlying tensions that challenge the frail alliance leading Italy today.
First of all, Aquarius was a magnifying glass for the profound ruptures within the European Union concerning immigration, and the weaknesses of the Dublin regulations, which puts most of the burden on first arrival countries such as Italy and Greece, that also happen to be weakest economically.
The fact that Spain offered to take Aquarius “is not a victory for Italy,” Montenegro told media outlets on Monday, “but a loss for politics in general and for the European Union in particular.” Meanwhile the diocese of Valencia, led by Archbishop Antonio Cañizares Llovera, disttributed its resources to welcome the 629 immigrants on Aquarius.
Secondly the case was an important trial balloon for the Northern League and Five Star Movement coalition. While some mayors chose to ignore Salvini’s call to close ports, most of the party members stayed in line.
“Raising your voice pays,” Salvini, Italy’s minister of the Interior, said. “The government remained intact in the face of those who saw ruptures between the League and the Five Stars.” Whether this unity will survive is hard to know, but no doubt the Aquarius has put pressure on both parties while making it clear that it’s Salvini who calls the shots, even when it comes to dealing with the EU.
Finally, this impasse in the Mediterranean Sea pushed the Italian Church to finally show its daggers, proving that when it comes to immigration they won’t back down. Already during the election season, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, President of the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI, only barely hid his opposition to the Northern League and its leader, calling its representatives “not to blow on the fire of frustration and social rage.”
Not even a week ago, Bassetti led the prayer for Italy organized in Rome by the Community of St. Egidio, dubbed “Pope Francis’s favorite new movement” in light of their work and commitment to immigrants and safe pathways for refugees.
“We need a turning point in the life of the country to start to work again,” Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary of CEI, said at the time, while also giving his best wishes to the new government.
Even Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, promoted a message of welcoming toward immigrants and refugees in a tweet Monday morning.
“I was a stranger, you didn’t welcome me,” it read, followed by the hashtag “Aquarius.”
Salvini was not bothered by the Vatican official’s tweet and speaking to reporters he stated that he is “coherent with the Gospel,” adding that he always carries with him the rosary on which he swore to deport half a million undocumented immigrants during the electoral campaign.
It’s clear where Pope Francis stands on these issues and while he refrained from commenting on the politics of Italy directly, he has not hesitated to make it clear in his homilies, audiences and literature that the pope stands with immigrants.
The president of the Jesuit refugee service in Italy, the Centro Astalli, spoke against the government’s decision not to rescue the hundreds of people on Aquarius. “If Italy puts demonstrations of strength and political heft before the life of migrants it’s clear that the humanity and dignity of the person becomes second compared to everything else,” Father Camillo Ripamonti said.
“Abandoning innocents at sea cannot be considered a political strategy but unequivocally remains a grave violation of human rights that Italy will be called to answer for,” he added.
The Community of St. Egidio also reacted, saying in a statement that “Italy must remain anchored to the principles of humanity that are in its tradition,” which includes saving human lives as it has done for the past years. But the group also recognized the failings of Europe in assuming responsibility.
“The different European states, not just Italy or Greece, should share welcoming among them, each taking charge of a number of refugees,” the statement said, also pointing to the issue of integration that many immigrants face once in Europe.
A program to focus on integration, called “Share the Jouney,” was launched by Francis and Caritas Internationalis last September. Its aim is to bring immigrants and citizens together to learn from each other in a practice of encounter.
From June 17-24 there will be a “global week of action,” focusing on sharing meals and food with other parishes across Europe. Incidentally this proves to be a strong message, just as European countries are playing Russian Roulette on immigration.
“Please, may doors be open and may minds and hearts be open,” said Michel Roy, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, in an interview with Vatican News. “We ask politicians not to ‘use’ migrants as if they were problems. What we ask politicians is, first of all, to bring forward welcoming policies that are humane. Secondly, to work toward the resolution of problems that make it such that people flee from their own land.”
Montenegro looks to the next step and what will happen when another boat bursting with hungry and dehydrated immigrants comes over the horizon. “What do we do? Do we wait every time for a country to generously step forward? Shall we make a draw? But you can’t play with human lives!” the cardinal said.
Already Salvini stated that under his leadership, Italy won’t budge. “With other Aquarius boats we will have the same behavior,” he said, as he celebrated the success of his tactic.
Aquarius, Montenegro said, “was a single battle, positively closed thanks to Spain.”
“There is still an entire war to face,” he added.