Father Luca Favarin with migrants from his community in Padua, northern Italy
CNN  — 

Italian Catholic priests are engaging in acts of resistance to a new anti-immigration law which they say will make thousands of people homeless.

The so-called “security decree,” spearheaded by hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, came into force at the end of November. It abolished Italy’s “humanitarian protection” category for migrants who don’t meet the country’s strict asylum criteria or are waiting for a response to their application, and made it easier to expel them.

Under the new law, some migrants will lose their protected legal status and as a result will have to leave immigration centers, putting them into legal limbo – without the prospect of a job, healthcare assistance or social integration.

Following Martin Luther King

At least three priests told CNN they are calling for “conscientious objection” to the law.

Father Alex Zanotelli, a member of Verona’s Comboni missionaries, said the decree is “unconstitutional and creates a sort of apartheid in the country between Italians and second-class people, the migrants.

“I’m appealing (for) civil resistance following Martin Luther King’s example: When a law is unfair because it degrades the individual, it’s my duty to disregard it,” he told CNN.

Zanotelli launched a Change.org petition calling for civil disobedience, such as asking doctors to keep treating migrants, lawyers to challenge the legislation and citizens to disobey the decree. So far the petition has almost 60,000 signatures.

He says that, far from improving Italy’s security situation, the decree will push people toward criminal organizations, such as the Mafia, who are ready to exploit them for cheap labor and illegal activities.

Father Luca Favarin, from the northern Italian town of Padua, says the law – which he calls the “in-security decree” – will create a “factory of illegals,” people who will be forced to live in stations or under bridges.

Father Luca Favarin with migrants from his community in Padua, northern Italy

Earlier in December, Favarin was at the center of a controversy over a Facebook post in which he called on Christians to boycott the traditional Christmas nativity scene.

Many Italian homes display a model nativity at this time of year, and it is an important symbol of faith for many Christians. But Favarin argued that some people have a nativity at home while holding views on migrants that clash with Christian values.

Favarin clarified in a radio interview that it is “hypocritical” to display a nativity scene and also support Salvini, because the message of the Gospel is to welcome the poor, the sick and strangers. “The nativity scene is the image of a refugee who seeks shelter and finds it in a stable,” he said.

Father Massimo Biancalani has been hosting migrants in his church in Vicofaro.

Favarin is working to integrate 150 migrants who live in eight buildings owned by the church across Padua province.

The migrants come either directly from Lampedusa – the closest Italian island to Africa and a main destination for migrants seeking to enter the European Union – or other migration centers. They are rerouted to Favarin’s programs, which teach them Italian and help with integration, with the ultimate aim of job placements in bars and restaurants owned by the church.

But now, Favarin says, due to the new legislation, at least two or three migrants in each building will be expected to leave, as it will be no longer legal for him to host them. He promises defiance.

Between 2016 and 2017, Italy granted “humanitarian protection” to 39,145 migrants, according to the Interior Ministry. Pending asylum applications in Italy numbered around 108,000 in September 2018, according to EU statistics body Eurostat.

After the decree’s approval, Salvini tweeted that the law will mean “more rights for the real refugees and less waste for those who are not refugees, period.”

He reiterated this at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on December 10, saying that it “gives more rights to the true refugees that, in the chaotic system that was in place until yesterday, were often mixed with the fake refugees.”

Salvini refused to reply to questions about what would happen to existing migrants in Italy once their legal status expires.

CNN contacted representatives of the Italian government for comment but has not yet received a response.

‘Short-term gains over long-term solutions’?

It is not only priests who say the law will put more migrants on the streets, however.

Matteo Villa, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, says removing humanitarian protections could create 70,000 more undocumented migrants in Italy by 2020 because the strategy of repatriating them is not working.

As data published by Italy’s Il Sole 24 Ore citing official figures and a Salvini speech shows, 20% fewer migrants were returned to their countries of origin from June to November 2018 than in the same period last year.

The removal of the “humanitarian protection” category makes the likelihood of asylum requests being completely rejected much greater, says Villa.

He estimates that the number of asylum rejections will increase by about 30,000 between now and 2020, as a result. Villa calculates that another 40,000 people who currently benefit from humanitarian protection will see their residence permits expire in the same period.

“The problem with Salvini’s strategy is that it prefers short-term gains in political support over looking for long-term solutions,” Villa told CNN. “The strategy may backfire, because any law-and-order party should look for policies that minimize crime, while more irregulars in Italy can only mean more people that, being unable to find work legally, will only be able to fall back into the black market or outright criminality.”

Another protesting priest, Father Paolo Farinella, made headlines last week for his extraordinary decision to shut his Genoa church over the whole Christmas period as a “conscientious objection” to Salvini.

In a blog post, he attacked Christians who support Salvini, saying: “Singing the praise of Salvini, an uncultured man without any sense of the state and the law, Catholics are complicit in crimes against humanity and ‘killing God,’ because every time you do wrong to poor people, you do it directly to Jesus in the living flesh of migrants.”

Father Massimo Biancalani, left, with a migrant from his community in Vicofaro

And in the town of Vicofaro, in Pistoia, Tuscany, Father Massimo Biancalani has taken migrants into the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, providing sleeping bags for at least 35 people evicted from immigration centers who would otherwise be homeless.

Some 150 people, Biancalani said, are sheltering in other structures owned by the church, though frequent police and health and safety inspections threatened to close them.

“Salvini’s intentions are ideological and electorally motivated,” he told CNN. “Unfortunately people fall for it and the immigrant becomes the scapegoat. We need civil disobedience and it’s important for secular and religious institutions to open their doors to welcome these homeless migrants.”