The Catholic Church as a whole does not support illegal immigration, at least in principle.  However, an increasing number of clergy and prelates, especially in Italy, do grant de facto support to illegal immigration.  For example, the bishop of Caserta, Msgr. Raffaele Nogaro, was one of the first high-ranking prelates to support a protest by three Combonian missionaries and a nun who, in early June, chained themselves to the gates of the police headquarters in this city in Southern Italy near Naples.  They demanded that any efforts to deport illegal immigrants be immediately halted.  Their protest has expanded to at least 17 cities, including Rome, Florence, Bari, Milan, Palermo, Benevento, Avellino, and Naples.  It is now supported by nine bishops, including Milan’s Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi, and at least 33 religious-related NGO’s.  Some of the clergy are calling for illegal immigrants to be offered shelter in churches, monasteries, and other religious institutions.

The Vatican has also weighed in on this heated immigration debate, which has split the center-right government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi, by reminding politicians that immigrants need to be treated with respect and compassion.  Msgr. Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, told the press that it is a “political duty to regulate immigration but a Christian duty to help those who suffer.”  He stressed that, although the Catholic Church does not support illegal immigration, she regards respect for the dignity of immigrants as a fundamental part of immigration policies.

Reform and Devolution Minister Umberto Bossi’s party, the devolutionist Northern League (commonly known as “Il Carroccio”), has threatened to pull out of the governing coalition if Berlusconi does not do more to halt the surge of arrivals on the country’s southern shores.  The League, which is often criticized as anti-immigrant, regards cracking down on illegal immigration as a fundamental part of its pact with voters and with the other parties in the governing alliance.

The League helped write Italy’s (at least nominally) tough immigration legislation in 2002 but has since complained that the government has dragged its heels on introducing key measures.  It is also furious over the surge in the number of immigrants who have been arriving on Italian coasts, in particular on the island of Lampedusa to the south of Sicily.

Bossi triggered a political storm by saying that “The navy and the coastal guards should defend our coasts and use the cannon,” although he later sought to distance himself from these comments.  “We are a populist party, we go around and listen to what people have to say and the people get angry when they see these thousands of immigrants arrive,” Bossi said.

In addition to calling for the resignation of Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, League House whip Alessandro Cè lashed out at the Church and Catholic relief organization Caritas, saying they were among those who “betray the population by appealing to silly ‘enlightened’ principles.”  On June 26, 2003, the official Vatican daily Osservatore Romano ran a scathing response: “Yesterday was a black day for the Italian parliament . . . it is difficult to remember when there has ever been such a detailed attack on the church which is busy trying to serve those who are less fortunate.”

Il Giornale reported (June 27, 2003) that Cè also blamed the postconciliar Church for Her stand on immigration, and, in this, he enjoyed the support of his party colleague and deputy, well-known young Catholic traditionalist Federico Bricolo, who, more specifically, pointed out that “new, 1968 revolution style priests were born of the Vatican II” and, therefore, “only the return to tradition could save the Church.”  Needless to say, these statements further exacerbated the political climate, unleashing a storm in government and opposition ranks alike.

The Northern League’s all-too-easy success in attacking the so-called religious freedom bill, now tabled in the Italian Parliament, has increased the League’s unpopularity with the religious and political establishments.  The real aim of this bill is to put Islam on the same footing as other faiths, especially Christian religions, which can strike accords with the state and receive public funds.

The Northern League’s success resulted more from a series of disquieting events than from its disproportionate clout in the government coalition: the removal of an imam who was accused of inciting and extolling violence in his sermons; a spate of terrorism-related arrests around Milan, including the arrest of the imam of Gallarate; and the July 8, 2003, prosecution of 35 alleged terrorists, including the imam of Milan’s Islamic center in Via le Jenner, who were ordered to stand trial on December 9.

In today’s climate, excerpts from a sermon by an imam in which Allah is implored to “destroy the houses of the enemies of Islam,” “allow Islamic fighters in Palestine, Chechnya and elsewhere in the world to triumph,” and “help us annihilate the enemies of Islam” may not sound shocking.  The problem is that these words were not uttered in a remote mosque in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan but in the main mosque of Rome in the Monte Antenne area, which is the largest not only of the 215 mosques in Italy but of all the mosques in Europe, the construction of which was justified by appeals to the need to foster dialogue, peace, and fraternity with Islam.  After these inflammatory messages were reported in the media, Minister of the Interior Giuseppe Pisanu had no choice but to ask for the imam to be removed and for all other mosques in Italy to be “purged of all those who preach violence, seek recruits for ‘holy war’ or act as agents for foreign interests in Italy.”  Two days after Pisanu’s statements, the imam was removed.  The Monte Antenne mosque falls under the aegis of the Islamic University of Al Azhar in Cairo, and the imam’s replacement will have to come from there.

According to the postcommunist mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, “the imam suspension is a gesture of great responsibility and sensitiveness which can contribute to ease a possibly tension-laden climate” (Il Messaggero, June 14, 2003).  This might have been the case had the imam been removed on the initiative of the Islamic community before his incendiary sermons caused such a stir.  Instead, Al Azhar has issued a press release defending the removed imam, saying that he was not extradited by the Italian authorities but had to leave because of the campaigns waged by the media against him.  This measure, the statement continued, was taken only “to extinguish the fire of the debate,” since Al Azhar is of the opinion that “the sermons by the formerly Rome-based imam for the Jihad to be invoked against Islam’s enemies have nothing against religion and he has the right to continue his mission in another country.”

These developments not only confirm the League’s fears but vindicate the alarm sounded by Centro Culturale Lepanto (CCL) at the time of the opening of the mosque in Rome ten years ago, which was hailed as a milestone in Islamic-Christian dialogue.  The dangers posed by its presence right in the heart of Catholicism, including the possibility that it would be used as an outpost of terror propaganda (Islam admits no distinction between the religious-spiritual and temporal-secular realms), were forcefully decried in a national campaign.  This campaign soon assumed international proportions, following the turmoil caused by then-speaker of the Lower House Irene Pivetti, who heeded the call by CCL and joined its members and supporters in a rosary of reparation in the nearby church of St. Aloysius Gonzaga.

Some imams do not limit themselves to preaching.  According to Minister Pisanu, as reported by ANSA (June 12, 2003), “terrorists are often able to hide themselves using illegal immigration networks and sometimes find shelter or at least some form of hospitality and varying levels of sympathy in Italian mosques.”  This appears to be the case with the other two imams mentioned above, who are accused of being involved in a range of crimes, including supporting and financing terrorism, aiding illegal immigration, tax fraud, and receiving stolen cars.  In particular, the arrest of the imam of Gallarate, Muhammad El Mahfoudi, has caught many by surprise, because he is said to be a staunch supporter of interreligious dialogue.  Incidentally, the first Al Qaeda-linked cell in Italy was discovered in Gallarate.