Italy’s minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, chose to cite Pope John Paul II rather than Pope Francis in his annual Christmas greeting, as a growing divide over immigration opens between the two leaders.
In his wishes for a “merry and holy Christmas and a happy new year 2019,” Mr. Salvini added a quote from sainted Polish Pope John Paul: “The future begins today, not tomorrow”:
While Pope Francis has not attacked Mr. Salvini personally, he has made a number of oblique references to the minister and his policies, and others close to the pope have been even more explicit in their denunciation of Salvini and his measures to stem unregulated mass immigration.
When Salvini refused permission to debark to the NGO vessel Aquarius that was carrying hundreds of African migrants in late June, the Italian bishops were among those protesting most loudly.
“It is Jesus coming to us on a vessel, he is in the man or child who drowns, it is Jesus who fishes through the garbage in search of a little food,” said Sicilian Cardinal Francesco Montenegro in a homily shortly afterward.
Preaching in Saint Peter’s Basilica last summer, one Catholic priest referred to Salvini as the “antichrist” while urging the police to practice “civil disobedience to block the deportation of persons back to countries where their lives are at risk.”
The priest credited Pope Francis for inspiring him to speak out on behalf of migrants.
“I give thanks to Pope Francis for his prophetic words regarding migrants,” the priest said, “and in particular in Lampedusa and in Lesbos.”
In late July, Italy’s biggest selling Catholic magazine attacked Mr. Salvini with a cover story comparing the minister to Satan.
The Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana splashed a photo of Salvini on its cover with the provocative caption “Get behind me, Salvini” — in Latin. The caption is a play on the words of Jesus, “Get behind me, Satan!” reported in Saint Matthew’s Gospel account.
The publication accused the minister of having abandoned the biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger” and of using “aggressive tones” in describing Italy’s migrant crisis.
Earlier this month, another Italian priest accused Salvini’s supporters of “killing God” and said he would close his church on Christmas in protest against the minister’s decree reining in illegal immigration that toughens the country’s immigration policies and facilitates deportations.
“If Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were to present themselves today to celebrate his birth, they would be stopped at the border and thrown back, thanks to Salvini’s dirty decree,” said the priest, Father Paolo Farinella.
Another Italian bishop published a Christmas letter to the faithful two weeks ago in which he claimed that Salvini’s security decree has abandoned “thousands of immigrants of every color and origin living in our cities.”
Far from being a “sacred representation,” this year’s Nativity scenes will be a “living dramatization” of migrants like Jesus in search of a home, said Giuseppe Piemontese, the recently named bishop of Terni, thanks to Mr. Salvini’s recent legislation aimed at curbing illegal immigration.
Asked 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, Mr. Salvini said the resistance has left him mystified.
“Honestly I cannot explain it. So much virulence leaves me truly perplexed,” Salvini said, adding that on the other hand he is “flooded” with mail from Catholics — even priests and bishops — who encourage him to proceed exactly as he has been.
Reports in early fall suggested that the pope’s immigration push and Salvini’s efforts to control Italy’s borders have resulted in the minister becoming more popular with Italians as Francis loses favor.
Italian media have attributed the pope’s “collapse” in popularity to his insistence on welcoming more and more migrants, which has led many to believe that he is out of touch with Italian society.
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