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Pier Paolo Cito/AP

Pope Joins Growing Chorus of Berlusconi Critics

August 19, 2008 06:00 PM
by Christopher Coats
The Italian government’s immigration and crime policies come under fire for xenophobic undertones by Italy’s guiding moral voice.

Papal Response to Italy’s Xenophobia

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Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s controversial immigration policies have found a new and vocal critic in Pope Benedict XVI, signaling a possible backlash to the prime minister’s hard line on immigration.

Already under fire from the wider European community for a series of measures aimed at Italy’s Roma and immigrant populations, Berlusconi found himself at the receiving end of pointed comments from the Church.

After winning a third term on a platform of fighting the country’s rising crime rates, Berlusconi launched a number of efforts that targeted Italy’s Roma population at the urging of far right political allies.

Italy’s Roma population hovers around 150,000.

Critics have argued that the efforts, coupled with comments from administration officials ranging from ambivalent to supportive, have bred an environment of prejudice and encouraged acts of racial violence against immigrants.

The Berlusconi government’s more controversial measures have included a move to expel large groups of immigrants from Italy, an effort to close the borders to all Romanians, and recently, a program that would require the registration and fingerprinting of all Roma, including children.

Directly addressing the government’s mix of aggressive legislation and ambivalence toward the violent acts aimed at the Roma population in Rome and Naples, the Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana (In Italian) warned of “new forms of fascism.”

While the Catholic Church first responded to criticism from the government by saying the publication, operated by a separate Catholic order, did not speak for the Papacy, Benedict did not back away from the comments. Instead, the Pope used his Sunday address to comment on the rise of racism in countries across the world, citing the Old Testament gospel of Jesus’s encounter with a pagan woman and his ability to overcome initial misgivings to perform a miracle for her daughter.

“One of humanity’s great conquests is indeed the overcoming of racism. Unfortunately, however, there are new and worrying examples of this in various countries, often linked to social and economic problems that nonetheless can never justify contempt or racial discrimination,” Benedict said.

While the Church remarked that Benedict’s comments were intended for the entire world, not just Italy, their timing was seen by many as a declaration of support for Famiglia Cristiana.

On Berlusconi’s behalf, the government replied that the Pope was not talking about them.
The Pope’s comments come amid a noticeable public shift against the government’s hard line policies following the death of two Roma girls, aged 10 and 11, on a beach outside of Naples.

After drowning, the two bodies were left for hours in the sand, ignored by a large number of visitors at the beach. The reaction to photos of the bodies and the apathetic crowd resulted in a public outcry across Europe.

Critics, including Naples’ most senior Catholic, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, decried the girls’ deaths and public indifference, remarking that they “had faced nothing but prejudice in life and indifference in death; an unforgivable truth.”

Since then, negative public reaction to Berlusconi has grown increasingly louder, with some comparing his efforts to actions taken by Benito Mussolini toward Gypsies in 1926.

Coincidently, Mussolini’s political heirs, the National Alliance and Northern League, have become necessary political allies to Berlusconi in his effort to create a cohesive, center-right party.

Opinion & Analysis: Looking in the wrong place

Background: Pope Benedict on the Roma

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