A right-wing politician has apologised for calling a young Italian woman who converted to Islam while held hostage in Somalia a “neo-terrorist”.
Alessandro Pagano of the anti-migrant League party said in a Facebook post that he had intended to criticise the government, not Silvia Romano, with his remarks in the lower house of parliament.
Mr Pagano drew outrage and a reprimand from fellow politicians and the Vatican on Wednesday after he referred to Ms Romano while complaining about the government’s refusal to reopen churches during the coronavirus lockdown.
Mr Pagano alleged there is a “strong anti-religious bent” in Italy’s coalition government, “and yet when a neo-terrorist comes back …”
It was a reference to the decision by the Italian premier and foreign minister to greet Ms Romano at Rome’s Ciampino airport on Sunday, and apparent willingness to pay ransom to her captors.
Ms Romano, 24, was freed after 18 months as a hostage of Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamic extremists.
She returned to Italy wearing the green hijab typical of Somali Muslim women, and told prosecutors she had freely converted during her ordeal.
Her return, however, has unleashed waves of anti-Islam hate speech on social media, criticising her conversion, her decision to work as a volunteer in Kenya and the ransom paid for her freedom.
Mr Pagano said his remarks were directed at the government, saying the ransom payment and high-profile welcome for Ms Romano was a propaganda victory for al-Shabab.
He expressed “maximum solidarity” with Ms Romano.
“If I offended some sensitivities, I apologise,” he said.
League leader Matteo Salvini tried to downplay Mr Pagano’s comments: saying “Let’s leave Silvia alone, as we wish her a long and happy life.”
Mr Salvini, who is known for his anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric, wrote on Facebook: “Let’s look instead at the true enemy, the true danger to our children, Italy, the world and freedom: Fanatical, integralist, violent and assassin Islam.”
Ms Romano, for her part, has reportedly urged Italians to stop “getting angry to defend me”.
“The worst for me is over, let’s enjoy this moment together,” she wrote to friends on a closed Facebook account, according to the Ansa news agency.
She said she was happy to be able to embrace her family and friends and thanked “all those friends, known and unknown, who dedicated a thought to me”.