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Italy's ‘new Saint Francis’ ends hunger strike as man saved from deportation

Italian lay missionary vows to maintain stand against Matteo Salvini’s hardline immigration policies

Italy's ‘new Saint Francis’ ends hunger strike as man saved from deportation
Biagio Conte in Palermo. The lay missionary has been fasting for 17 days in protest. Photograph: Igor Petyx

An Italian lay missionary has suspended his hunger strike after saving a Ghanaian man from deportation but vowed to keep on campaigning against Italy’s hardline immigration policies.

Brother Biagio Conte, 56, known as the “new Saint Francis”, fasted for 17 days as he attempted to convince the government to reconsider its decision and save Paul Aning, 53, who for the past 10 years had worked as a volunteer at the Missione Speranza e Carità (Hope and Charity Mission) welcome centre in Palermo.

“Paul and others migrants from Africa risked everything to come here to Italy, their promised land”, Conte told the Guardian. He was barefoot and stretched out on a makeshift bed of carboard boxes, his ankles chained, and his appearance gaunt.

“I am equally committed to risk my own life in order to save him from an expulsion that he does not deserve because he, and many others like him, contribute every day to making Italy a better country”.

Biagio Conte with Paul Aning. Conte still has to convince Italian authorities to revoke his deportation. Photograph: Igor Petyx

On Tuesday, judges in Palermo suspended Aning’s deportation. But Conte still has to convince Italian authorities to renew his permit of stay and revoke his deportation in order that Aning can remain in Italy.

Born into a middle-class family, at 26, Conte, like Saint Francis, abandoned his life as a businessman to live like a hermit in the Sicilian mountains. In the 1980s, he began wearing the Franciscan habit and sandals, and upon his return to Palermo in the early 1990s he decided to dedicate his life to the poor and homeless. He often sleeps on the streets alongside them.

This sort of protest is nothing new to Conte. In 2018, after the death of several homeless people in Palermo, he slept on the street and went on a hunger strike that lasted 10 days. Following his protest, the Sicilian regional government decided to finance an addition to the Hope and Charity Mission, which guaranteed more meals and rooms for the homeless.

“We live in dark times”, said Conte. “We are returning to dehumanisation. After having struggled to tear down walls, we’re now building them again. I ask the government to reconsider its decision, to reflect on the consequences of this law”.

The so-called “Salvini decree”, a security bill drafted by Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, left thousands of migrants in legal limbo when its removal of humanitarian protection for those ineligible for refugee status but otherwise unable to return home was applied by several Italian cities soon after its approval by parliament in December 2018.

On Tuesday, the European court established that a refugee who has fled a country for fear of torture or other inhumane treatment cannot be deported even if the host country denies or revokes refugee status for reasons of security.

“I have no intention of changing my mind or the law”, Salvini said. “This is why it’s important to change Europe on 26 May. And the new decree we are drafting will have even stiffer sanctions.”

Italy’s government is also planning to issue a second security decree that would mean NGO rescue boats would be fined up to €5,500 (£4,760) for each migrant they disembark on to Italian soil.

Biagio Conte: ‘We live in dark times.’ Photograph: Igor Petyx

“I am asking Salvini to reflect and change his mind”, says Conte. “I’m making an appeal to his surname, whose root in Italian means ‘save’. But above all I’m referring to his name, Matteo: the Gospel of Matthew states, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me’.”

The Catholic Church is on Conte’s side. The bishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice, expressed its solidarity in visiting the missionary a few days ago.

Recently, Italian priests declared their willingness to “open the church doors of every single parish” to people expelled from reception centres as Salvini’s decree threatens to make thousands homeless.

On Monday, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a Vatican almoner and aide to Pope Francis, said he would start paying the electricity bills of a squatted state-owned building in Rome after being criticised by Salvini for restoring the connection for 450 people, including 100 children, who had been living there without electricity and hot water since 6 May. On Saturday evening, Krajewski climbed down a manhole and broke a seal to switch the electricity back on in the building.

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