Pope Francis has taken a public stand in solidary with Italy’s Roma community just a day after the country’s deputy prime minister called for the shutdown of their encampments “to safeguard children”.
Matteo Salvini, the right-wing interior minister and deputy prime minister made the call on Thursday amid after street protests erupt when a family tried to move into council housing in Rome.
The Roma family of Bosnian origins was threatened and insulted after resulting eligible for council housing. In response Pope Francis invited the family as well as 500 Romas for an audience at the Vatican. “Only by talking can you overcome all fears and tear down all walls,” he said.
In Casal Bruciato – an underprivileged periphery east of Rome – residents and supporters of the neo-fascist group Casa Pound took to the streets to oppose the decision.
One man was recorded on camera threatening to rape the Roma woman, who was holding a child. The man, who was identified as a supporter of Casa Pound, later apologised for the insults and denied being part of any political group.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte condemned the act of aggression and said Italy was witnessing a “dramatic weakening of collective sensitivity.”
The family has been holed up in fear for its personal safety. Italian media have described the street patrolling taking place in the neighbourhood as a “fascist sit-in.”
Mr Salvini has long vowed to conduct a census of Italy’s Roma population in order to expel those without citizenship. Some observers denounced the plan as reminiscent of Benito Mussolini’s fascist ethnicity-based policies.
While the census has still to come to fruition, over the past year the leader of the anti-immigration League party has battled with Italian courts and European institutions to clear the informal camps where around 26,000 Roma people live.
Last summer, the Italian firebrand embarked on a “zero camp policy” and gave the greenlight to the eviction of over 300 Roma individuals living in one of the biggest camps in the capital’s outskirts. The demolition of Camping River was blocked by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) before it could kick off.
Mr Salvini opposed the decision, referring to the encampment as a “pocket of parasites” due to the precarious sanitary conditions inside the camp. “There is no discrimination against the Roma,” he told Italian media at the time. “It is simply a matter of equal rights and obligations.”