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ROME – Italy's Catholic bishops offered to care for a majority of 140 migrants the country's government had prevented from leaving an Italian coast guard ship docked for days in a Sicilian harbor because politics shouldn't be practiced at the expense of the poor, prominent churchmen said Sunday.
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops' conference, told Italian state TV the bishops worked with Italy's Interior Ministry "in a spirit of collaboration" to help end the stalemate over where the asylum-seekers the coast guard ship rescued would go.
Parishes will care for some 100 migrants, while Albania and Ireland each will accept about 20 under an arrangement announced late Saturday night by Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte. The majority of the migrants were disembarked from the Diciotti at a dock in Catania early Sunday.
The ship rescued 190 migrants on Aug. 16, most of them young men fleeing harsh rule in Eritrea, and docked in Catania four days later. Anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini refused to let passengers who were not minors or ill off the ship until fellow European Union nations volunteered to take the asylum-seekers.
Except for Ireland, none did. Albania is not an EU member, and Cardinal Bassetti expressed appreciation to leaders there and in Ireland, which Pope Francis was visiting over the weekend. Francis, who as pope also is the bishop of Rome, has used his papacy to stress the need for society to care for migrants and others in need.
On Sunday, Bassetti urged more "involvement by Europe, but also by the whole world" in addressing the needs of migrants and refugees.
In separate comments, another bishops' conference official, the Rev. Ivan Maffeis, told Sky TG24 TV that the Italian churchmen got involved because "you can't do politics on the backs of the poor."
A government office that safeguards the rights of people who have been detained determined last week that the migrants were being kept on the ship unjustly and without proper authorization. A Sicily-based prosecutor formally notified Salvini on Saturday he was being investigated for suspected abduction, illegal arrest and abuse of office.
Any prosecution of Salvini would be handled by a special tribunal for government ministers, and Salvini's fellow senators would have to vote on whether to lift his Parliamentary immunity if the case progresses.
Salvini staunchly defended his actions, saying he was keeping Italians safe. Much of his electoral base blames migrants for crime.
Frances D'Emilio is on Twitter at www.twitter.com /fdemilio