(RNS) A proposal by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the outspoken archbishop of Bologna, Italy, that his country give preference to Catholic immigrants over Muslims has outraged many political leaders, embarrassed Catholic aid organizations and disturbed Muslims.
"It makes me want to ask when the holy appeal for the new Crusades will arrive," said Giampaolo Silvestri, spokesman for the Green political party. He labeled the proposal "xenophobic and racist."
Making the proposal Wednesday (Sept. 13) at a news conference to issue a pastoral letter to the more than 900,000 Roman Catholics in his diocese, Biffi said the criteria for admitting immigrants should not be solely economic and social.
"We must worry about saving the very identity of the nation," he said.
Muslims, the cardinal said, "have a different diet, different holy days, family rights incompatible with ours and a conception of women very far from ours to the point of allowing and practicing polygamy."
Biffi, 72, an influential but often controversial prelate who is sometimes listed among possible successors to Pope John Paul II, urged that Italy give preference to immigrants from the Catholic countries of Latin America, the Philippines and Eritrea.
"I read Cardinal Biffi's declarations with incredulity," responded Liva Turco, minister of social solidarity in Italy's center-left government. "A lay and democratic state can never accept suggestions that lead to discrimination against people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or culture."
Umberto Saleri, in charge of immigration issues for the Italian Federation of Trade Unions, said Biffi's proposal was "serious to say the least." He said both the Italian constitution and the regulations of the European Union bar such discrimination.
Speaking for the Catholic charity Caritas, which provides meals and beds for migrants and refugees, the Rev. Elvio Damoli, director for Italy, said that as a Catholic organization, Caritas "is called to welcome the immigrant without distinction of religion, ethnicity and to help 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, he said a school the community runs for migrants in Rome has students from 92 nations, 75 percent of them Christians and 24 percent Muslims.
Leaders of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy called Biffi's statement "disturbing" and compared it to the anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust.
"What worries me is that the roots of anti-Semitic discrimination were in Europe, and we don't want what happened to the Jews to be repeated against the Muslims," said Ali Schuetz, spokesman for the union.
"To think of Europe as a citadel under siege where only those with certain requisites can enter and where everything is immutable and must stay that way does not take into account that the world has changed," said Hamza Piccardo, national secretary of the union.