Maltese Bishop Says It ‘Pains Him’ to See Salvini Holding a Rosary

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ROME — The bishop of Gozo, Malta, said this week that it “pains him” to watch Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini holding rosary beads while calling for a stop to the “Islamic invasion.”

Speaking on Catholic radio on Saturday, Bishop Mario Grech alleged that “people who use Christian beliefs to bolster populism are manipulators,” the Times of Malta reported.

Catholics with such narrow beliefs want to return to a sectarian Church that goes against the spirit of unity set by the Second Vatican Council, the bishop said, claiming that using Christian beliefs to affirm sovereignty is a sign people want to reverse the process of modernization.

This is not the first time Bishop Grech has criticized Salvini. Already in July 2018, Grech said he was “gravely concerned” by Salvini’s decision to close Italy’s ports and publicly backed a statement by NGOs claiming that the consequences of such a move “are potentially fatal, as the vessels will no longer be able to continue saving lives in the Mediterranean Sea.”

“Although supposedly aimed at ensuring respect for the law, this action directly undermines the protection of human life at Europe’s borders, making them even more dangerous for refugees and asylum seekers,” the migrant ferry operators claimed.

In criticizing Mr. Salvini, Bishop Grech joined a host of other Catholic prelates who have expressed their open opposition to the minister’s efforts to rein in illegal immigration, calling Salvini everything from the anti-Christ to Satan.

Asked last year how he explains the “unprecedented hostility” toward him from the Catholic establishment in Italy, notably the bishops conference and Catholic journals such as Famiglia Cristiana and Avvenire, Salvini said he is perplexed.

“Honestly I cannot explain it,” Salvini said. “So much virulence leaves me truly bewildered.”

“There is a fundamental underlying prejudice that I cannot explain,” Salvini said. “The beautiful thing is that after the cover of Famiglia Cristiana and the attacks from Avvenire I received a flood of letters from men and women of the Church who include their names, surnames, and addresses, encouraging me to go on as I have been.”

“I have even gotten letters from priests and bishops,” he said, although many asked him to protect their confidentiality to avoid problems. “This really surprised me. In politics, I’m used to it, but in a world of openness, dialogue, sobriety and its own way of being, I did not expect there to be such an environment.”

While careful never to mention Mr. Salvini by name, Pope Francis himself has made sharply critical remarks understood to refer to the interior minister.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Italian daily La Stampa last week, the pope made no attempt to hide his dislike for Salvini, going so far as to compare the minister’s speeches to those of Adolf Hitler.

“Sovereignism” — the movement led in Italy by Mr. Salvini — reveals “an attitude toward isolation,” the pope claimed.

“I am concerned because we hear speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934. ‘Us first, We…We…’ These are frightening thoughts,” he suggested.

“A country should be sovereign but not closed. Sovereignty must be defended, but relations with other countries and with the European community must also be protected and promoted,” Francis said.

“Sovereignism is an exaggeration that always ends badly: it leads to war,” he said.

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