Priest Steadfast Before Mafia Threats: Italian police warn Pope Francis could be a target too

Half a dozen men stand nonchalantly in front of a grubby building on one of Rome’s busiest streets as cars whizz past. They stiffen whenever a stranger approaches. But few would guess they’re undercover cops protecting Italy’s most endangered man.

Inside is the Rev. Luigi Ciotti, a 69-year-old priest with soft brown eyes and silver hair who has spent the past 20 years fighting the Italian Mafia. He runs an organization called Libera, which means free. It’s become a household name because of its efforts to fight criminal organizations, to support victims and to redevelop land confiscated from mob bosses. Yet Ciotti says there is still a lot more to be done.

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“I dream of a country where every person, every citizen wants to assume their responsibility. On that day the Mafia and corruption will cease to exist,” he said in an interview.

Ciotti has had police escorts before, but when a notorious Sicilian boss named Toto Riina issued a death threat from his jail cell a couple of months ago, the authorities immediately doubled Ciotti’s protection. Riina, the imprisoned boss of the Corleone family, reportedly told a fellow prisoner Ciotti should be taken out “like Pino Puglisi,” a priest killed by the Mafia in 1993 and beatified by Pope Francis last year.

Now wherever Ciotti goes, he’s flanked by a procession of vehicles and undercover officers who search every place he visits before he enters.

“I don’t like talking about it because I believe it’s a mistake to emphasize my role, to concentrate all the attention on me,” he said. “Frankly, I am more worried about my police escorts, worried about their well-being. They have wives, children, families.”

There are four main Mafia organizations in Italy: the Naples Camorra; Sicily’s Cosa Nostra; the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia; and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, which is considered by many experts to be the most powerful. A government-funded study conducted last year estimated that Italian Mafia earn $13 billion a year from activities including drug trafficking, loan sharking and extortion.

Ciotti is dressed in a navy blue sweater and seated in a plain office surrounded by empty paper cups, discarded notes and little else. The space once belonged to the violent Banda della Magliana gang that dominated Rome’s crime scene in the 1970s. This week Ciotti is back in the news for hosting a national anti-Mafia convention near the Vatican on Oct. 24.

It is expected to attract 3,000 people, with speakers including celebrated author Roberto Saviano, who also has lived under police escort since “Gomorrah,” his book on the Naples Mafia, became an international success and later a movie. The conference will hear how Libera has turned the land and property seized from the Mafia into schools, cooperatives, and farms and vineyards that produce pasta, oil and wine sold from New York to Tokyo. Kids around Italy volunteer to help with cultivation in the summer months and the group also runs projects in schools and universities.

Despite his organization’s many achievements, Ciotti says the power of the Mafia has never been greater, in part fueled by Italy’s ongoing economic crisis. “This is a Mafia that makes money, a lot of money, without having to resort to armed violence,” he said. “The biggest problem today is the Mafia’s proximity to certain sectors of the economy and politics. Another big challenge is cultural — we have to link the battle against the Mafia to the commitment for a more just society.”

The Mafia has received renewed attention from Italian church leaders in recent months. A bishop in Calabria called for a 10-year moratorium on naming godfathers at baptisms in a bid to stop Mafia members from spreading their influence, and in July another bishop accused crowds of “blasphemous devotion” when they saluted a powerful 82-year-old convicted mobster during a religious procession.

The pope himself made a dramatic appearance at a prayer vigil for the families of Mafia victims in March and urged mobsters to change their lives and to “stop doing evil.”

Last year, a famed anti-mob prosecutor said Francis’ financial reforms at the Vatican bank were making mob bosses “very nervous” and could expose the pope to assassination plots.

Undeterred, Francis visited the southern region of Calabria earlier this year, where he condemned the “adoration of evil” and implied that Mafiosi are “excommunicated.” It gave new impetus to the fight against the Mafia, and Ciotti says the two have forged an alliance.

“I believe I found a father, also a brother,” Ciotti said. “Francis is an extraordinary person, extraordinary in his humility and authenticity.”

“The support of the pope is fundamental for those … who want to commit themselves to fight the Mafia and to the dignity and freedom of people.”

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