Italians Help Flood of Refugees in Pope Francis' Vision of a 'Church for the Poor'

Photo via Rosie Scammell / RNS

Migrants sit at the Caritas center in Catania, Sicily. Photo via Rosie Scammell / RNS

Sitting outside the central train station here in eastern Sicily, a 16-year-old who would only give his name as “Simon” hunched his knees up to his chest and wrapped himself up into a ball. With little spoken English, the teenager from Eritrea has taken to miming the way he traveled across the Mediterranean.

He was one of around 325 migrants crammed into an overcrowded boat that left Libya earlier this month, only to lose power a few hours into the journey.

Italy and Vatican On Guard after Threat from Islamic State

Photo via Jimmy Harris / Flickr / RNS

View down Via della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Photo via Jimmy Harris / Flickr / RNS

The Italian government is on high alert after threats from the Islamic State called Italy “the nation signed with the blood of the cross.”

Italy is one of a handful of major Western counties that has not been victim of a large-scale terror assault since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.

Italian officials fear extremists could enter the country amid the growing tide of refugees arriving by boat from North Africa. About 500 extra troops have been stationed to guard symbolic targets in Rome and monitor the streets of the capital for suspicious activity.

The video threat, released with images of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt who were beheaded this month, warned that Islamic State forces were “south of Rome,” in Libya. At its closest point, Libya is little more than 100 miles from the Italian islands of Sicily and Sardinia.

This comes four months after the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine Dabiq ran a cover photo of the militant group’s flag flying above the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican with the headline: “The failed crusade.”

Italian Priest Continues to Go After Mafia Despite Death Threats

Pope Francis shakes hands with Father Luigi Ciotti. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service/RNS.

Half a dozen men stand nonchalantly in front of a grubby building on one of Rome’s busiest streets as cars whizz past. They stiffen whenever a stranger approaches.

But few would guess they’re undercover cops protecting Italy’s most endangered man.

Inside is the Rev. Luigi Ciotti, a 69-year-old priest with soft brown eyes and silver hair who has spent the past 20 years fighting the Italian Mafia.

He runs an organization called Libera, which means free. It’s become a household name because of its efforts to fight criminal organizations, to support victims and to redevelop land confiscated from mob bosses.

Yet Ciotti says there is still a lot more to be done.

“I dream of a country where every person, every citizen wants to assume their responsibility. On that day the Mafia and corruption will cease to exist,” he said in an interview.

Ciotti has had police escorts before, but when a notorious Sicilian boss named Toto Riina issued a death threat from his jail cell a couple of months ago, the authorities immediately doubled Ciotti’s protection.

Italy Expels Imam for Preaching Hatred Against Jews

Italy’s Interior Minister Angelino Alfano at the EPP Study Days in Palermo in 2011. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Italian officials on Tuesday moved to expel a Moroccan imam who was caught on video inciting violence against Jews during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said he had ordered the imam, Raoudi Aldelbar, to be expelled “for seriously disturbing the peace, endangering national security, and religious discrimination.”

The imam was filmed during a Friday sermon in a mosque near Venice last month calling for Jews to be killed “one by one,” according to the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, which published the video on its website.

“Oh Allah, count them one by one and kill them all,” the imam allegedly preached during the service at the mosque in the northern city of San Dona di Piave.

After the video was aired in Italy by the center-right daily, Libero, Alfano said: “Uttering anti-Semitic sermons that explicitly incite violence and sectarian hatred is unacceptable. May my decision in this case be a warning to all those who think you can preach hatred in Italy.”

The government’s decision drew widespread support across the political spectrum and from the Muslim community in the Veneto region, where the imam is based.

Pope Francis Apologizes for Persecution of Pentecostals

Pope Francis talks with Giovanni Traettino on July 28, 2014. CNS photo/ L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters.

Pope Francis sought forgiveness for decades of persecution of Italian Pentecostals when he met with around 300 evangelicals from the U.S., Argentina, and Italy in the southern town of Caserta on Monday.

The pope made his second visit in as many days to the Mafia stronghold near Naples, this time to meet evangelical pastor Giovanni Traettino, whom he befriended while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

During the visit, Francis apologized for the persecution suffered by Pentecostals under Italy’s fascist regime in the 1920s and 1930s and urged Christians to celebrate their diversity and unity.

“Catholics were among those who persecuted and denounced the Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy,” Francis said.

“I am the shepherd of the Catholics and I ask you to forgive my Catholic brothers and sisters who did not understand and were tempted by the devil.”

Since his election last year, the pope has been reaching out to other faiths and has held talks with Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. On Monday, he went even further by apologizing for what Catholics had done.

Why Is Pope Francis Spending so Much Time Going after the Mafia?

Pope Francis will make a second trip into Mafia territory on July 26. Creative Commons image:Catholic Church England and Wales.

It began with the murder of an innocent 3-year-old boy who burned to death in his grandfather’s car in a Mafia ambush in January. Pope Francis was so shaken by the death of Nicola “Coco” Campolongo that he spoke out against the ferocity of the crime and those behind it.

But he didn’t stop there. In June, the outspoken pontiff traveled to the southern Italian town where the murder took place and accused Mafia members of pursuing the “adoration of evil.” Then he went one step further.

“They are not with God,” Francis said during his visit to the nearby town of Sibari in the region of Calabria where the global crime syndicate ‘Ndrangheta is based. “They are excommunicated!”

Italian Publisher Unveils Magazine Dedicated to Pope Francis

Il Mio Papa, a new weekly magazine that will focus entirely on Pope Francis. Photo courtesy Mondadori Editore. Via RNS

Il Mio Papa, a new weekly magazine that will focus entirely on Pope Francis — complete with a weekly centerfold poster of the pontiff — is scheduled to hit Italian newsstands on Wednesday.

The magazine, whose name translates to “My Pope,” will go heavy on photography and colorful layouts, according to a news release from publisher Mondadori. It’s the first magazine entirely devoted to just one pontiff.

The magazine will include stories about people and events that inspire the pope; background information on papal remarks; a “saints of the week” column; a collection of international cartoons about the pope; and a list of that week’s television programs dedicated to issues related to faith and Christianity.

Are Those Really St. Peter’s Bones on Display at the Vatican?

St. Peter in Prison (The Apostle Peter Kneeling). Photo courtesy Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons/RNS

When Pope Francis cradled the small box said to contain nine bone fragments believed to be the mortal remains of St. Peter, the first pope, he fanned the flames of a long-standing debate over the authenticity of ancient church relics.

Most old churches in Italy contain some ancient relic, ranging from a glass tube said to hold the blood of St. Gennaro in Naples to a section of what is believed to be Jesus’ umbilical cord in the Basilica of St. John of Lateran in Rome. Perhaps the most famous religious relic in Italy — the Shroud of Turin, believed by many to be Jesus’ burial cloth — will go on display again in early 2015, and Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia this week invited Pope Francis to attend its public debut.

But St. Peter’s bones are of particular importance, since they are the very basis — both architecturally and spiritually — for Catholicism’s most important church. And yet the bones were only discovered during a series of excavations in the 1940s, almost 1,900 years after Peter died, in either 64 or 67 A.D.

Rise in Italian Catholic Church Attendance Attributed to "Francis Effect"

Pope Francis greets people during a meeting with UNITALSI. Photo via RNS/by Alessia Giuliani, courtesy Catholic News Service

First, the name “Francesco” leapfrogged to No. 1 on the list of the most popular baby names in Italy.

Then, the city of Rome reported a tourism boom, mostly from Latin America.

Now, there’s word Roman Catholic Church attendance is climbing throughout Italy.

Blame it on “the Francis effect.”

Italy’s Center for Studies on New Religions reported Sunday that around half of the 250 priests it surveyed reported a significant rise in church attendance since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March.

The Pope Francis Effect: ‘Francesco’ Now Italy’s Most Popular Baby Name

Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service. Via RNS.

Moved by the election of Pope Francis seven months ago, the name “Francesco” has leapfrogged to No. 1 on the list of the most popular baby names in Italy, according to a study.

The study, conducted by Enzo Caffarelli, who researches the origins of names at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, along with telephone directory publisher Seat PG Italia, also showed a trend toward re-naming streets, town squares, and parks for St. Francis of Assisi, the pontiff’s namesake.