ROME – A small Italian town in Tuscany became the setting for aggression against an immigrant late last week, when a young man, originally from Gambia, managed to escape injury despite facing gunshots (which turned out to be blanks) and return home to a parish that hosts him and another 100 migrants.

On Aug. 2 around 11 pm, Buba Ceesay, 24, from Gambia, was taking his usual evening run near the parish, when two people on bicycles approached him shouting racist slurs.

“If I’m walking around, I don’t even look at those people, you know? Because they always talk rubbish, I always pass them like this,” Buba later told local reporters.

“But I never expected that they would shoot a gun,” he said.

The four bullets fired were blanks, but Buba said he froze upon hearing the shots and later managed to pick up one of the cartridges before running back to the parish.

“Of course, I was scared because this has never happened before,” he said.

The incident came against a backdrop of mounting threats and aggression, as tensions over immigration rise in the pope’s backyard.

“It was likely a case of emulation of other facts that have recently occurred in Italy, probably by some hooligan,” said Father Massimo Biancalani, a priest in the parish of Vicofaro, Tuscany in a phone interview with Crux.

“But this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the fact,” he added, “because it leads me to believe that a certain type of xenophobic and racist message has permeated the roots of the culture.”

Biancalani hopes that soon there will be further clarity on the case, one of many cases of violence against immigrants that have taken place in Italy following the increase of the migration flows from Africa and the Middle East in 2014.

The first sign that something was wrong was around 10:30 pm, when two young men, between the ages of 18 and 21 according to witnesses, came by the parish yelling profanities and insults at immigrants. According to Biancalani, he was in a meeting to address the issue when Buba ran in carrying the cartridge.

The parish priest, who has been active in welcoming immigrants for years, took to Facebook to report the attack, drawing comments ranging from support to ridicule.

“Today we are sitting on a powder keg, and it’s necessary for all of us to learn to be cautious in actions and in words, so that the opposite of what we want doesn’t happen: that war breaks loose, where there should be peace instead,” said Bishop Fausto Tardelli of Pistoia, Italy, in a statement.

“We must be vigilant, before the worst occurs,” he added, “so that anger might not prevail over patience, fear over courage, insult and arrogance over respect, violence over love.”

The day after the shooting, a crowd gathered in the nearby city of Florence to protest the rampant racism that has taken over Italy carrying banners under the famous dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore reading: “Florence will always be on the front lines against racism!”

Answering the pope’s call

Biancani opened a small center for extraordinary welcoming (CAS) in 2015, following Pope Francis’s call to dioceses worldwide to open their doors to migrants. The beds were sufficient for 20 people, but soon the parish decided to open its doors to immigrants expelled from other welcoming centers, bringing the tally up to 110.

“Unfortunately, we have to have mattresses on the floor because we don’t have the resources,” the priest said. “It’s all on our shoulders from an economic perspective, but with a few initiatives we go ahead.”

The initiatives include a pizza place entirely managed by immigrants welcomed in the parish once a week, called “Pizza at the Refugee,” where visitors can pay what they want and the money is divided among the staff.

Another initiative is bringing the immigrants for a day at the pool in the heat of summer. Last summer, a picture posted by Biancani on Facebook showing several young black men enjoying the pool caused backlash on social media.

The Italian Minister of the Interior and leader of the right-wing populist party Northern League, Matteo Salvini, tweeted that Biancani was “an anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-Italian priest,” adding ironically, “Enjoy your bathe.”

Soon after, members of the Alt-right-wing political parties Forza Nuova and CasaPound entered the parish on Aug. 27 declaring that they wished to “oversee the doctrine” at Mass. Tardelli condemned what he called this “unprecedented threat.”

“Since then we’ve had a deluge of offences and threats of every type from all parts of Italy,” Biancani told Crux.

The intimidations ranged from death threats to graffiti on walls, and even holes being punched in the tires of bikes belonging to guests at the parish. But the bulk of the threats, Biancani said, take place on social media and the internet.

According to the priest, the pope’s call that encouraged him to start the welcoming initiative three years ago “has unfortunately failed for the most part.”

“The local Church has been almost completely absent,” he added, “and we have not had great participation on the part of the bishops.”

According to Biancani, to talk about immigrants today means scaring people away and misunderstandings, adding that even Francis “has been met with challenges.”

The sense of abandonment that the parish of Vicofaro has felt was not helped by the discovery several months ago that two young men welcomed by Biancani were found guilty of dealing drugs.

“Obviously we were back in the grinder,” he said, referring to the backlash of insults and threats.

But Biancani hasn’t given up on his guests, saying he’s waiting to welcome one of the two young men now in prison back in his parish once he’s released under house arrest.

“We don’t do a blood test when we welcome them,” he said. “This is only two cases among the many we have supported.”

Biancani expressed concern for what he perceives to be a global tide of xenophobia, from Europe to the United States. While he admitted that “when not governed, immigration can be scary,” he added that it’s essential for exactly that reason to have a “political class that is responsible and offers welcoming and understanding.”

For now, the parish looks toward future projects, putting threats and gun-shots behind. They’re planning to provide more opportunities for work and professionalization for the over 100 immigrants in their care, as well as installing kiosks around town to inform people about immigration.

“I believe we must understand these kids, but to integrate them we must look for people to have an encounter … with that encounter, the prejudices will fall,” he said.