The Pope has refused to meet immigrants who have taken shelter in one of the ancient Papal Basilicas in Rome in case it is seen as a political gesture.
Around 110 men, women and children from Eastern Europe and Africa have been living in the gold and marble splendour of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for the past two weeks, ever since they were evicted by Italian authorities from a squat on the outskirts of the city.
The immigrants had written to the Pope asking for the Vatican to grant them asylum, saying: “We ask that you make yours the wounds that we carry, that you grant us as human beings who have been persecuted, harassed and humiliated by the Italian state, political asylum.”
However, when the Pontiff was due for a visit yesterday to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, he had the squatters and all of their possessions moved to the car park by Vatican gendarmes.
According to the Catholic newspaper The Tablet, Father Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said beforehand that the Holy See feared such a meeting might be “manipulated to put pressure on the Rome authorities.”
The question of mass migration is a sensitive political issue in Italy, where the total who have reached Italy this year by boat from North Africa has already passed 40,000.
As part of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which settled issues of sovereignty and territory between the Vatican and the Italian state, the 5th century Santa Maria Maggiore retains extraterritorial status even though it is located on Italian territory and its security is controlled by Vatican gendarmes, not Roman police.
The group of migrants has now left the basilica. Authorities in Rome had offered them separate accommodation for men and women but the families said they wanted to stay together. They have been offered temporary accommodation by the Italian authorities in a former exhibition hall.