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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

"It really talks about basic human rights," he said. "It's for us a good theological base and we can share that also with other religions."

His organization, with headquarters in Rome, works in 57 countries to help about 500,000 refugees and other displaced people. "I think we can say quite clearly that most of them are not Catholic," said spokesman James Stapleton.

There are those who believe the church could reap some benefits in showing kindness to Muslim immigrants in Europe.

For one, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out recently about his concern for the treatment of Christians in predominantly Muslim countries. By treating Muslims well in Europe, one line of thinking goes, the church could influence the way Catholics are treated in the Mideast and elsewhere.

Speaking generally of the flow of Muslims into Europe, Msgr. Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants, said in an interview: "We are not people without eyes, and we must be careful about the development of this situation." But, he added, there are those in the church who believe that under the "principle of reciprocity," Muslims "must help the Christians in their countries if they receive a fair treatment" in Europe.

Some European Catholics also suggest that the presence of so many Muslims, who are more visible in their faith than others in Europe, might, in effect, shock non-practicing Catholics back to their faith.

Increasingly, Catholicism is becoming a religion of the elderly in Italy, said Quyen Ngo Dinh, who runs the migration department of Caritas Rome, the Catholic social service agency that operates the John Paul II Canteen. "If you go to church, you will see that no one is less than 50 years old," she said, with perhaps a touch of exaggeration.

Still, she said, as Muslims become a larger presence in Italian life, "it becomes an opportunity also for Italians … to really think about why they are Catholic and whether they really want to be Catholic."

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