ROME – When the estimated 65,000 Italian participants in the August 1-6 World Youth Day in Lisbon gather for a special kickoff program tonight, one of the stars of the show will be Italy’s most famous anti-mafia priest, Father Luigi Ciotti.

Ciotti founded an organization called Libera, or “free,” in the early 1990s, which has gone on to become the country’s largest anti-mafia network, with 304 local chapters up and down the country. As a result of threats on his life, Ciotti has moved with a police escort for years, but has never stopped speaking out.

His appearance in Lisbon right now will have special political subtext, as the 77-year-old Ciotti is currently involved in a verbal tug-of-war with Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy Prime Minister and the leader of the far-right Lega party.

Ironically, the dispute has emerged shortly after the 30th anniversary of an historic anti-mafia speech by the late Pope John Paul II, which many observers regard as marking the definitive end of an era in which the church often was accused of being overly tolerant of organized crime, in part because of financial support from mob bosses, especially in southern Italy.

It also comes shortly after the defacing of a plaque in the Sicilian city of Palermo dedicated to the late Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, who was also an outspoken critic of the mafia. Though police have not identified a culprit, many locals believe the vandalism was carried out by a mafia supporter.

Ciotti’s tension with Salvini erupted in late July, when Ciotti was interviewed by the Italian national television network RAI regarding plans for a massive suspension bridge across the Strait of Messina, intended to connect the island of Sicily to the Italian mainland.

Plans for the project, which would be the largest suspension bridge in the world, date to the 1990s and have twice been abandoned, but were recently revived by the government of conservative Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at an estimated cost of $15 billion.

Ciotti warned that without adequate controls, the huge outlays of public funding could represent a boondoggle for the mafia organizations which remain active and influential in southern Italy, especially in Sicily and the region of Calabria where the two sides of the bridge are to be constructed.

Non unirà solo due coste, ma certamente due cosche,” Ciotti said, a play on words in Italian which translates as, “It won’t just unite two coasts, but certainly two gangs.” The reference was to the Ndrangheta, the dominant version of the mafia in Calabria, and the Cosa Nostra, the leading form of organized crime in Sicily.

Salvini, who has expanded his party’s reach in southern Italy despite its origins as a separatist movement in the north, responded angrily, calling Ciotti a “a guy in a cassock” and terming his comments in “poor taste” and “shameful,” suggesting that if Ciotti were to leave the country “he’d be doing everyone a favor.”

“You fight the mafia with work,” Salvini said, calling the bridge project “the greatest anti-mafia operation of the post-war period.”

The war of words came in the wake of events marking the anniversary of May 1993 trip by John Paul II to Sicily, in which he delivered a strong anti-mafia address. That trip unfolded just months after a judge and a prosecuting attorney in Sicily, both famous for their anti-mafia crusades, had been assassinated.

“After so much suffering, you finally have the right to live in peace,” the pope told Sicilians, who at the time were widely seen as still in the grip of organized crime gangs.

“Those who are guilty of disturbing this peace, those who carry on their consciences so many human lives, must understand that you cannot kill innocents! God said: ‘Do not kill.’ No person, no one, and no human aggregation, no mafia, can trample on this holy right of God!”

After Salvini’s reply, a variety of civil and ecclesiastical figures and organizations came to Ciotti’s defense. Among them was Father Maurizio Patriciello, a well-known pastor in a poor area outside Naples long dominated by the Camorra, the local version of the mafia, and whose church was bombed on his birthday last October.

“The mafias can be defeated,” Patriciello wrote. “To do so, however, everybody has to get involved, everybody … including, and perhaps, above all, priests, me included. Thanks, Father Luigi.”

When Ciotti appears in Lisbon tonight, he will be flanked by Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the Italian bishops’ conference; Archbishop Giuseppe Salvatore Baturi of Cagliari, the secretary general of the bishops’ conference; and Auxiliary Bishop Américo Aguiar of Lisbon, set to be made a cardinal by Pope Francis Sept. 30.

Though the event was planned well before the current spat erupted with Salvini, the presence of such senior ecclesiastical figures nevertheless likely will be taken by Italians as another expression of solidarity with Ciotti.