Pope urges respect as politicians turn on Italy's Roma population

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The Independent Online

The Pope has called on Italy to respect immigrants' rights after opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi urged the closure of borders to Romanian workers, and conservative allies demanded thousands of Roma be deported.

Thirty-eight Romanians were expelled over the weekend, using the tough new diktat signed into law on Friday. And despite a brutal attack on a group of Romanians in a suburb of the Italian capital on Friday night, top Italian politicians continued their assault on immigrants over the weekend, with the leader of the post-fascist National Alliance calling for the expulsion of 20,000 from Rome alone.

Yesterday Pope Benedict added his voice to those calling for a more measured approach to the immigration problem. He told pilgrims in St Peter's Square: "I wish that the relations between migrant and local populations should be in the spirit of high moral civility and the fruit of the spiritual and cultural values of every people and country."

He called for the "rights and duties at the basis of every real cohabitation and relationship between peoples" to be guaranteed.

Gianfranco Fini, former foreign minister in Mr Berlusconi's government, said: "People can't take it any more, because this wave of immigration has caused a growth in criminality.

"The gypsy camps must be demolished," he said, adding "[some] are worthy of Calcutta. Those who live in those squatter camps on the river bank, or amid rats and sewage under the open sky, it's obvious that they don't have work and that's why they must be expelled. And that doesn't mean being given a warning that they must leave, it means being put on the bus and taken back to Bucharest."

In Bucharest, the Italian ambassador was asked to give an explanation for the attack on Friday, while Franco Frattini, the EU's commissioner for immigration, said that Italy, like other EU countries, already had "a vast arsenal of tools and norms for managing immigration". But the politicians behind the controversial diktat enabling immigrants deemed a threat to public security to be summarily expelled continued to defend it. The diktat was rushed through hours after the murder last week of an Italian woman, Giovanna Reggiani, near a squatter camp on Rome's outskirts. The residents of the camp were scattered by police, and the camp itself destroyed by bulldozers.

Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome, leader of the new Democratic Party and prime mover behind the diktat, said: "A very strong signal was required against this type of criminality. I am always on the side of the weakest – and for me the weakest are those who suffer violence. There is a growing sense of insecurity among our citizens."

He appealed to the opposition to back the measures.

But attacks on Mr Veltroni's initiative from across Europe continued to resonate. The front page of Saturday's Independent, with the headline "Outcasts" above a photo of the Roma chased from their camp, was reproduced in all the main Italian papers.

But as left-wing members of the governing coalitions squirmed under the attacks of the left-wing Italian media, Interior Minister Giuliano Amato, popularly known as Dr Subtle, found the perfect justification: the diktat was needed "to prevent the tiger of xenophobia, the beast of racism, from breaking out of the cage".