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Migrants matter to Protestant churches in Italy


Courageous search and rescue missions bring hope in the Mediterranean Sea

By Marta Bernardini | Special to the Presbyterian News Service

ITALY — Refugees and migrants are at the heart of the mission and calling of Protestant churches in Italy. The geopolitical position of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea has made it one of the European countries most involved in the dynamics of migration.

Refugee families from Lebanon arrive at the Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino International Airport in Rome through the Humanitarian Corridors program of Mediterranean Hope. (Vibes, Beckwith Video Studio, Property of Waldensian Church in Italy)

People talk of more than 40,000 deaths via border crossings in the past two decades, nearly 20,000 of which have taken place since 2014, according to the Missing Migrants Project. These numbers make the Mediterranean migration route among the most dangerous in the world.

Faced with a phenomenon of this magnitude, as worrying as it is painful, Protestant churches have taken a clear and decisive position within the Italian and European landscape to defend human rights  for all: a right to migrate, to seek  out better living conditions for  oneself and for one’s loved ones;  a right to protect human life and to be saved from danger, because “A Samaritan […] saw him and had compassion for him” (Luke 10:33); a right to a decent life, in which it is possible to move in a safe and legal fashion via regular channels: a right to be heard, according to the gospel calling: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35).

The choice to stand up for the human rights of refugees and migrants has imposed itself on the collective conscience as a gospel response to the call to “love our neighbor” (Luke 22:39), to see Christ in the other, “For as much as you have done this to the least of my brothers, you have done this to me” (Matt. 25:40), putting the churches on the side of right and on the side of the righteous.

In this context, the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI) launched Mediterranean Hope — Refugee and Migrant Program in 2014. This Christian response to the migration crisis occurred in the wake of the dreadful shipwreck on Oct. 3, 2013, when 368 people died a few miles off the coast of Lampedusa, a little island in the heart of the Mediterranean.

That experience and others were documented by the Mediterranean Hope Observatory, which gave churches the chance to know what it is like to be on the front line, on the margins, in the most uncomfortable places — and in those places where you can meet the transformative strength of humanity on the move. In a related project incorporating work undertaken in Sicily at the House of Many Cultures and assistance and advocacy at the national headquarters in Rome, MH developed its Humanitarian Corridors project.

A dance workshop with refugees, volunteers and social workers is held at the House of Culture, a reception center of Mediterranean Hope in the town of Scicli in Sicily, Italy. (Vibes, Beckwith Video Studio, Property of Waldensian Church in Italy)

There are three trends worth reflecting on through this MH project: externalization of the borders, criminalization of acts of solidarity and the “illegalization” of migrants — the majority of whom arrived on Italy’s coasts from Libya, a country in which the political crisis has intensified and where human trafficking has become the principal business of criminals and militias. In 2018 the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner condemned the “unimaginable horrors, serious violations, atrocities and abuses” suffered by migrants and refugees in Libyan detention centers, declaring it to be an unsafe country. Our experience on the front line on Lampedusa has confirmed this, through the words and marks on the skin of people traumatized by inhumane violence. These testimonies have heightened criticism of the accord, signed in 2017 between Italy and Libya, to manage immigration and control the borders, delegating the task of bringing back boats heading for Europe to the Libyan Coast Guard. Added to this scenario is that of criminalization of nongovernmental organizations that in recent years have undertaken search and rescue missions, saving the lives of tens of thousands of people making the highly risky Mediterranean crossing.

These acts of solidarity have become something for some to condemn, turning rescuers into so-called criminals. Note the recent case of the NGO Sea-Watch (June 12, 2019), whose boat picked up 52 endangered people from the sea, yet was denied a disembarkation port for several days, until the arrest of its captain, Carola Rackete. She was ultimately released, signaling a great victory for solidarity. In this affair, a symbol of a resistance in favor of humanity, churches knew how to stand side by side and provide real support, being unafraid to put themselves out there. To complete the Italian picture, not least among these trends is the implementation of extremely restrictive policies proposed by Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, among which the “security decree” (October 2018), which provides for the abolition of humanitarian protection, one of the most widespread in the Italian system, limits access to other forms of protection and to services such as housing, health, the possibility of employment or a regular education; and the “security decree II” (June 2019), which hinders sea rescue missions still further.

The political objective of making refugees, migrants and rescue missions illegal goes some way to heighten social tensions in order to strengthen those who voted for right-wing and populist parties, now popular in many European countries. At a European level, the results of the elections at the end of May are interesting. Fear of a victory for nationalist and Euroskeptic forces left space for a Europhile majority, voted for in greater numbers than in the past (51%), which demonstrates that there is still interest in the European institutions. In general, a Europe that is less bureaucratic, more agile, more practical and capable of interpreting the spread of Euroskeptic and anti-immigration forces is needed.

The commitment of Protestant churches in all these scenarios becomes ever more determined. These churches have been willing to expose themselves with courage and are equipped with gospel vision for the future. One of their greatest strengths has been the Humanitarian Corridors project, which is enabling the arrival in Italy of 2,000 vulnerable people from Lebanese refugee camps through a safe and legal system of humanitarian visas. This has become a model for other countries in Europe, so much so that there is a new proposal for Humanitarian Corridors from Libya. The idea stems from the need to contend with the Libyan crisis and with the block on search and rescue in the Mediterranean, sharing a common course of action and responsibility among European countries. For Italian Protestants, it is the model of the mustard seed, sown with the Humanitarian Corridors tested out in Italy, which we hope will produce a large, robust plant that upholds the human rights of all.

Please consider supporting areas of greatest need among World Mission partners in Europe:

This article is from the Fall 2019 issue of “Mission Crossroads” magazine, which is printed and mailed free to subscribers within the U.S. three times a year by Presbyterian World Mission and also available online at

Marta Bernardini leads the Mediterranean Hope project in the city of Palermo and in the island of Lampedusa, Sicily. She also works with international partners to promote the project.

Translation by Fiona Kendall, European and legal affairs advisor, Mediterranean Hope.


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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