ROME – Following months of mounting criticism by the local Church over immigration, Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini said he’s “perplexed” by accusations from Catholic publications given that his political party supports freedom of education, the right to life and the natural family.

Recently Catholic magazines in Italy, including the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, condemned Salvini’s stance on immigration and his frequent use of racist and xenophobic rhetoric, with the lay weekly Famiglia Cristiana going so far as comparing the minister to Satan on its front page.

“Honestly I can’t understand it, such virulence leaves me very perplexed,” Salvini said in a lengthy interview Aug. 9 with the news site La Bussola Quotidiana, run by Catholic journalists.

“There is an underlying prejudice that I cannot explain, but I deal with it,” he said. “The great thing is that after the front page by Famiglia Cristiana and the attacks by Avvenire, a flood of men and women of the Church wrote me, with name, surname and address, inviting me to continue as I am. Even priests and bishops [were among the supporters].”

Salvini explained that even though his Catholic fans expressed support, they all asked that he not divulge their identity “to avoid problems.”

“I am used to it in politics,” the minister said, “but in a world that makes openness, dialogue, [and] sobriety its trademark, I didn’t expect for there to be such a climate.”

In the interview, Salvini underscores that while several Catholic publications may have criticized him, many Catholic voters still support him. A recent poll shows that the populist government is trusted by up to 60 percent of Italians, something unusual in the country’s divided politics.

The opposition by Catholic magazines led some Italian journalists to believe that it was part of a conspiracy to bring down the minister, who handles relations between the Italian state and the Vatican. Some, such as the weekly La Verità, even suspected that Salvini had his hands on some scandalous dossier that could humiliate the Church.

“No, no, no, I don’t even have half a file,” Salvini made clear in the interview, adding that he also doesn’t “want to believe” that the opposition is led by a minority group of Catholics who profit from immigration. Instead, he said he wants to “start from real life” and experiences.

The interview was conducted by phone while Salvini visited Foggia in southern Italy, where recently a violent car crash resulting in the death of 12 immigrants shed light on the unsafe and exploited conditions of migrant workers in the country.

“I am interested in substance, and the point is that an immigration under control guarantees the rights of both Italians and immigrants,” he said, adding that the only antidote to racism is “to bring back respect of the laws, the rules, [and to] control who comes in and out of this country.”

Tensions between Salvini, who leads the populist right-wing party Northern League, and the Church in Italy began early on with immigration being the most important point of contention. The minister’s harsh tone clashed starkly with the message of encounter promoted from within the Vatican walls.

When Salvini was still running for election, he publicly swore on the rosary and the Bible that he would deport over half a million undocumented immigrants from Italy were he to win.

“It seemed normal to me,” Salvini explained in the interview.

If it weren’t for immigration, Salvini arguably would fit the profile of the ideal Catholic candidate in Italy, something that the minister attempted to underline in his interview.

When asked about “womb rental,” gender theory and gay marriage, Salvini answered in line with Catholic teaching. Regarding gay marriage, he stated that his “position is absolutely against it” and firmly opposed “womb rental and similar horrors.”

(“Womb rental” generally refers to commodification of a woman’s womb, such as a woman agreeing to carry a baby to term for an infertile couple in exchange for payment.)

“We will defend the natural family based on the union between a man and a woman,” Salvini said. “I will exercise all possible power.”

The minister also showed that he is open to criticism regarding the distribution of contraception in schools, adding that it is “especially important to educate” young people toward restraint. Salvini also said he is committed to incentivizing births by introducing nativity bonuses and lowering taxes.

Even on the topic of disability, Salvini emphasized his determination to providing further financial support and free kindergarten for the disabled.

The minister also spoke of the threat of Islamic radicalism and its connection to illegal immigration, saying that the fight against terrorism “is holy” and that overseeing the Islamic presence in Italy is essential to safeguard the country’s values and identity.

“It’s obvious that the fanatic interpretations of the Quran are incompatible with our values of freedom and our Christian values,” he said.

“I am surprised that certain Catholic hierarchies pretend not to understand,” he said.

Salvini is perfectly poised to make his vision of Italy a reality. His party, which rules in coalition with the populist left-leaning Five Star Movement, has control of the ministries of family and disability, education and the interior.

The Northern League’s minister for the family and disability, Lorenzo Fontana, spoke out in the past against gay marriage, stating that it does not exist. Salvini’s promise in the interview to give more funds to this department makes a clear statement that he’s committed.

On education, the Northern League is attempting to introduce crucifixes in every public building, including schools.

As minister of the interior, Salvini can close ports to immigrant vessels, deport undocumented migrants and enforce firmer border security.

Despite the numerous points of encounter with Salvini, the Catholic hierarchy has so far proven unrelenting on the question of immigration.

In the recent interview, Salvini argues that the Church might have more to gain than to lose if it were no longer to consider him an enemy, but he also seems to suggest his belief that while some Catholic elites might oppose him, the “Catholic vote” is on his side.