(RNS) A proposal by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the outspoken archbishopof Bologna, Italy, that his country give preference to Catholicimmigrants over Muslims has outraged many political leaders, embarrassedCatholic aid organizations and disturbed Muslims.

"It makes me want to ask when the holy appeal for the new Crusadeswill arrive," said Giampaolo Silvestri, spokesman for the Greenpolitical party. He labeled the proposal "xenophobic and racist."

Making the proposal Wednesday (Sept. 13) at a news conference toissue a pastoral letter to the more than 900,000 Roman Catholics in hisdiocese, Biffi said the criteria for admitting immigrants should not besolely economic and social.

"We must worry about saving the very identity of the nation," hesaid.

Muslims, the cardinal said, "have a different diet, different holydays, family rights incompatible with ours and a conception of womenvery far from ours to the point of allowing and practicing polygamy."

Biffi, 72, an influential but often controversial prelate who issometimes listed among possible successors to Pope John Paul II, urgedthat Italy give preference to immigrants from the Catholic countries ofLatin America, the Philippines and Eritrea.

"I read Cardinal Biffi's declarations with incredulity," respondedLiva Turco, minister of social solidarity in Italy's center-leftgovernment. "A lay and democratic state can never accept suggestionsthat lead to discrimination against people on the basis of theirreligion, ethnicity or culture."

Umberto Saleri, in charge of immigration issues for the ItalianFederation of Trade Unions, said Biffi's proposal was "serious to saythe least." He said both the Italian constitution and the regulations ofthe European Union bar such discrimination.

Speaking for the Catholic charity Caritas, which provides meals andbeds for migrants and refugees, the Rev. Elvio Damoli, director forItaly, said that as a Catholic organization, Caritas "is called towelcome the immigrant without distinction of religion, ethnicity and tohelp them on the path to legality."

"There is no Islamic invasion in Italy," said Mario Marazziti,spokesman for the Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio. As an example, hesaid a school the community runs for migrants in Rome has students from92 nations, 75 percent of them Christians and 24 percent Muslims.

Leaders of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy called Biffi'sstatement "disturbing" and compared it to the anti-Semitism thatpreceded the Holocaust.

"What worries me is that the roots of anti-Semitic discriminationwere in Europe, and we don't want what happened to the Jews to berepeated against the Muslims," said Ali Schuetz, spokesman for theunion.

"To think of Europe as a citadel under siege where only those withcertain requisites can enter and where everything is immutable and muststay that way does not take into account that the world has changed,"said Hamza Piccardo, national secretary of the union.