Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini likes to present himself as a devout Christian but the head of the Catholic Church has taken starkly different political stances.

Pope Francis is not eligible to vote in Italy but if he were, it would be unlikely he would vote for Italy’s Interior Minister and Lega leader Matteo Salvini.

Shortly after Salvini’s declaration that his governing alliance with the populist Five-Star Movement had failed, the pontiff told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that the speeches given today were similar to those given by Hitler in 1934.

“We first. We, we, we. That is a way of thinking that causes fear," Pope Francis said in a thinly veiled reference to Salvini’s slogan ‘Italians First’.

"Sovereignty must be defended. But relations with other states and with the European Union must also be defended and promoted,” he added, before warning: "Sovereignism is an exaggeration that always ends badly: It leads to war".

Italian Interior Minister and leader of the League party Matteo Salvini is seen in the sea after meeting with supporters at the Caparena beach in the Sicilian seaside town of Taormina, Italy, August 11, 2019.
Italian Interior Minister and leader of the League party Matteo Salvini is seen in the sea after meeting with supporters at the Caparena beach in the Sicilian seaside town of Taormina, Italy, August 11, 2019. (Reuters)

Religious symbolism

This was the Pope's clearest political statement on domestic politics since his election six years ago. The comments represent, what is effectively, direct intervention into the ongoing government crisis in Rome.

And it is an open declaration of war on Salvini, who for his part has been continuously challenging the Pope on the basis of religion for months, regularly making a show of his religious piety.

Salvini frequently kisses his crucifix, which he recently worn particularly visibly during his public appearances. During election campaign appearances, Salvini used to hold up a rosary. 

At rallies, he entrusted himself and his followers to the protection of the Virgin Mary. After his recent European election successes,  Salvini thanked the ‘Virgin Mother’.

migrant looks on as he disembarks the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms NGO, after it arrived in Lampedusa, Italy, August 20, 2019.
migrant looks on as he disembarks the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms NGO, after it arrived in Lampedusa, Italy, August 20, 2019. (Reuters)

Is the Catholic Church for or against migration?

Pope Francis has avoided directly addressing Salvini and has instead relied on his deputies to reach out to the populist leader. 

Earlier in August, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, the President of the Italian Bishops' Conference and Archbishop of Perugia, lashed out of Salvini, telling the politician that Christians should “help those in need- Italians and foreigners”.

Another, Father Alex Zanotelli, called on Christians not to vote for Salvini’s Lega, saying:  “Those who vote for Lega cannot call themselves Christians.”

Salvini has stuck to his guns, however, and suggested that he has deep support for his anti-migration policy within the Church.

As about four in five Italians still consider themselves Catholic, Salvini’s battle against the church represents a kind of political struggle for the Catholic soul of Italy.

Source: TRT World