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In Italy, protecting immigrants crosses the faith line

The largest immigrant bloc in Europe is Muslim, and one of its biggest defenders is the Roman Catholic Church. The church doesn't face the accusations of self-interest that it does in the U.S.

July 19, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Rome — Visually speaking, the John Paul II Canteen is more IKEA cafe than soup kitchen. Tucked away in a pleasant hillside neighborhood in Rome, it has clean lines, attractive furniture, track lighting and framed photographs, making it a welcome oasis for the immigrants who stream in daily from shelters, homeless camps and overcrowded apartments.

Strolling down the cafeteria line on a recent day, canteen coordinator Maurizio deStefano boasted about the quality of the free food, which today included farfalle pasta and meatballs, spinach, boiled eggs, cheese, bread and apples.

"The thing is," he said, "there are so many Muslims that the menu often doesn't have pork on it."

That may be sacrilege in some Italian culinary circles — no prosciutto? no spaghetti alla carbonara? — but it's hardly unexpected, considering Muslims are the largest group of immigrants in Italy. Still, as the name suggests, the John Paul II Canteen is run by Roman Catholics, not Muslims. Therein lies an interesting dynamic.

In Europe, as in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church has assumed a leading role as a protector of, and advocate for, immigrants. But whereas the largest bloc of migrants to the United States are Catholic, the majority of European immigrants are Muslim.

In the United States, some critics of the church accuse outspoken clerics such as Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles of self-interest when they support immigrant rights and immigration reform. There is logic to the argument because Latin American Catholics are pumping new life into a church that has been losing its hold on many native-born Americans.

Such an argument is more difficult to make in Europe, where the ranks of native-born Catholics are declining without being refreshed by large numbers of Catholic immigrants. Vatican officials say that, in supporting immigrants, the church is acting on principle, not pragmatism — and that the Catholic record in Europe lends credence to those who say that American bishops have pure intentions in their immigration advocacy.

"For the church, the perspective is … the right of the human person to be treated with dignity," said Father Federico Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman. "It is a general principle; it's not just a religious principle. It is more profound."

European nationalists, Catholics among them, worry about the Islamicization of Europe, but the Vatican itself has been steadfast in its support for immigrants. If anything, Vatican officials see the growing secularization of Europe as a greater threat.

Because it is close to Africa and to the Balkan states, Italy has long been an entry point to Europe for immigrants. It has had a reputation as a relatively welcoming place, but that has begun to change. In 2008, the government began a crackdown on illegal immigration, and last year, the Italian Parliament passed legislation that established stiff fines and allowed the government to detain undocumented immigrants for up to six months without charge.

The Catholic Church strongly opposed those measures, even branding the package of laws a "sin." In an overwhelmingly Catholic country where the church influences many aspects of public life, the government respectfully disagreed.

"The Catholic Church does its job.... Ours is a different vision," said Pierguido Vanalli, a member of Parliament from the Northern League, a party that espouses strong controls on immigration and has been accused of xenophobia. "We have to temper the needs of the people who live in Italy with the problems that excessive immigration brings with it. The church sees only one aspect, whereas we have a broader vision."

For all that, Vanalli (who is Catholic) said he does not believe that the church has an ulterior motive for championing immigrants. "I'm convinced that it's dictated by theology," he said. "I don't see what possible practical advantage they could have."

Church insiders and Vatican watchers, for the most part, agree.

"It's a theological conviction," said Luigi Accattoli, a veteran Vatican correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

"But," he added, "there's also a very modern reason. It's due to the strong convictions that [ Pope] John Paul II had on this subject, and this was due to his experience as a Pole. The Poles immigrated all over the world, and the Poles were political refugees who were escaping communism. And so John Paul II formulated a kind of right to immigration, and he did it very forcefully."

Father Peter Balleis, international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, said his organization's philosophy is best expressed in the Bible chapter Matthew 25: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

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