ROME—It sounds almost like a lame joke. A former Trump strategist, a conservative cardinal with a penchant for fancy ceremonial gowns, and a far-right xenophobe walk into a bar in Rome. In this case, the Trump strategist is Steve Bannon, the conservative cardinal is American Raymond Burke, and the xenophobe is Italy’s new interior minister Matteo Salvini. No, they aren’t in a bar, but they are conspiring against one man, Pope Francis, on the issue most dear to him: immigration.
It is no secret that Francis, whose first ever apostolic voyage was to the Italian island of Lampedusa to give support to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crashed onto the shores there, supports an open-border policy. He has celebrated mass on the Mexican border with the United States, and he has warned world leaders to prioritize the acceptance of migrants over national security concerns and to avoid “discrimination, racism, extreme nationalism and xenophobia.”
In a series of statements ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday, Francis called for integration and acceptance, not borders and closed ports. “I hope that the states involved in these processes reach an understanding to assure, with responsibility and humanity, assistance to and the protection of those who are forced to flee their own country,” he said in one of his many messages to mark the occasion.
But the pope’s words have fallen on the deaf ears of many politicians, and sparked outrage from Bannon, Burke, and Salvini. Bannon told ABC News this week that the Catholic Church was “one of the worst instigators of this open borders policy,” singling out Francis as the main reason for the migration crisis in Europe (which began long before Francis was elected in 2013). Bannon, who proclaims his own Catholic faith, previously has said the Catholic Church just needs “illegal aliens” to fill its pews.
When Bannon was in Rome in early June to celebrate Italy’s new populist government run by Salvini, Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio and their previously unknown puppet Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, he also took a side trip to the Trisulti monastery. It’s an 800-year-old gem of real estate a few hours from Rome being developed by Benjamin Harnwell, a conservative British Catholic with ties to UKIP, the party that built its reputation pushing for Brexit, as a bastion for right-wing-thinking types.
Harnwell runs the ultra-conservative and somewhat mysterious Catholic organization Dignitatis Humanae Institute which advertises that it was “founded to help Christian politicians defend their faith in the public square.” Harnwell runs a banner on his website with a quote from Bannon: “[Harnwell’s] the smartest guy in Rome. He’s always a tough guy. He comes across as a monk, but he’s actually a very tough guy.”
The monastery will host events with speakers like Bannon and Burke and conservative Christian leaders. “Trisulti will be the home of a number of projects that underscore the fact that man is made in the image and likeness of God, and that recognition of the imago Dei is the cornerstone of the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilization,” Harnwell, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is quoted as saying on his website.
Harnwell and his organization are an important connection between Bannon and Burke. Harnwell is the one who first introduced the two, according to a New York Times article that is displayed on Harnwell’s website. Bannon spoke at one of Harnwell’s’ conferences by grainy video link back in 2014 during which he warned that the migration exodus would lead to a rise in populism. Burke was the keynote speaker the year before.
Burke is one of the pope’s chief detractors, openly questioning Francis’ ability to run the church and campaigning for a lessening of papal powers. He has openly called Islam a threat as he supports tighter border controls in direct defiance of his boss, the pope, and he is a vocal supporter of American President Donald Trump, whom the pope has called un-Christian for wanting to build his wall.
The cardinal has been cultivating a relationship with Salvini, who visited him this week in Rome. The two had met several times before over their shared dislike of the current pontiff, albeit for different reasons. The fact that Salvini visited Burke, who is no longer the head of any congregation in the Curia, instead of Francis, whom he has openly criticized for inviting migrants to Italy, is lost on no one. And the photo of the two men smiling like Cheshire cats is at once creepy and worrying.
Salvini closed Italian ports to charity rescue ships earlier this month, sending more than 600 people across high seas to Spain to prove his strength. He has now declared war on nomadic Roma people, calling for a physical survey of Roma camps to create a census from which he will essentially make a list of people to deport.
“Irregular foreigners will be deported via agreements with other countries,” he told an Italian television station this week. “But Italian Roma unfortunately we have to keep.”
It is no secret that Bannon has been a big fan of Salvini’s policies, calling them an example for the rest of the world. Salvini’s actions have also boosted his popularity at home, and a photo op with a cardinal like Burke speaks volumes about just whom he is trying to impress.
A recent survey showed his Lega party 2.2 percentage points higher than when his coalition government was inaugurated on June 1. His coalition party Five Star Movement lost 2.5 points in the same survey, in part because their base doesn’t agree with the hard line on migration.
Francis doesn’t agree either, but he is losing ground both here in Italy and abroad. He has been particularly vocal about migrant rights in recent days, both with regard to the closing of Italian ports and the separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border. “I would like to point out that the issue of migration is not simply one of numbers, but of persons, each with his or her own history, culture, feelings and aspirations,” Francis said this week. “These persons, our brothers and sisters, need ongoing protection, independently of whatever migrant status they may have.”
Paolo Gentiloni, Italy’s former center left prime minister accused Salvini of following the American model too closely, tweeting a sentiment that many moderates fear the most: “Yesterday refugees, today Roma, tomorrow guns for everyone.”
One might assume Francis is asking what Jesus would do for the good of humanity. It seems Bannon, Burke, and Salvini, worshippers of Trump, think they know better.