ROME, Latium (AFP) – The anti-immigration Northern League party is again fanning the flames of racism in Italy, just days after a plea from Pope Francis for greater tolerance in the predominantly Catholic country.
The pope last Monday flew on his first trip outside Rome to the tiny of island of Lampedusa to "cry for the dead" migrants and refugees who perish trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
He urged people to heed "the cries of others" on a trip that humanitarian organisations and Italian parliament speaker Laura Boldrini, a former United Nations refugee worker, hailed as "historic".
But some politicians, who are little inclined to defend secularism in Italy on issues such as crucifixes in churches, abortion or gay marriage, called for greater "autonomy" from the Church.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, a deputy from Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, said there was a difference between "religious preaching" and "a state handling a difficult, complex and insidious phenomenon".
Lawmakers from the Northern League have gone further, calling on the pontiff to provide "money and land to house immigrants" who land in Europe.
The debate has taken a sinister twist after the deputy speaker of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, a leading member of the Northern League, compared Italy's first black minister to an orangutan.
The remarks against Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge have been condemned by most politicians, with Prime Minister Enrico Letta speaking of a "shameful chapter" for the country and President Giorgio Napolitano saying they were an example of "barbarism".
Calderoli said the jibe was intended as a "joke" and added insult to injury saying he "liked animals a lot".
The Northern League on Monday even decided to capitalise on the publicity it is receiving and announced it would hold a demonstration against illegal immigration in Turin on September 7.
Kyenge, a doctor and an Italian citizen of Congolese origin, says she has received daily threats since being nominated.
Her reaction has been low-key but she has said the slur shows "a lack of knowledge of others and of the phenomenon of migration, as well as an absence of culture of immigration".
The centre-left Democratic Party has been equally critical and leading senator Luigi Zanda said Kyenge's proposal on a law to allow children of immigrants to acquire Italian citizenship should now be adopted as quickly as possible.
Historically a land of emigration, Italy's foreign-born population has increased exponentially over the last two decades ever since the wave of immigration from Albania in 1992.
Since the revolutions in Tunisia and Libya there has also been an increased influx of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa transiting through these countries.
In 10 years, between 2002 and 2012, the share of immigrants in the population has tripled to reach 7.9 percent, according to figures from the labour ministry.
At a meeting in Rome on Monday, Letta and his Maltese counterpart Joseph Muscat called for greater assistance from the European Union to manage undocumented migration.
Muscat, who last week threatened to send migrants back to Libya, said the situation was "unsustainable" since there were no EU rules on the "pushback and push forward of migrants" to other parts of the EU.
A former member of the Christian Democratic party, Letta said it was "fundamental to apply the pope's appeal launched in Lampedusa: 'Never again'."
The United Nations says thousands of people have drowned in recent years trying to reach Italian shores and 40 have died so far this year.