ROME (AP) — Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has taken aim at a Vatican cardinal who climbed into a utility manhole to restore electricity to squatters in a state-owned building, pitting far-right Italian politics against Pope Francis' humanitarian agenda.
Salvini was incensed by the take-charge action of Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who is the pope's official almsgiver.
A rising force in Europe's far-right politics, Salvini is insisting that Krajewski pay 300,000 euros (about $340,000) in back electricity bills for the Rome palazzo, tweeting Monday that Italians who pay for their own power must be "fools."
Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano rallied to the cardinal's side, equating what Krajewski's did on Saturday night for about 450 homeless people, among them nearly 100 children, to a "gesture of humanity."
Krajewski, a Polish prelate who was elevated to cardinal's rank last year by Francis for championing the needs of society's poor, said he'd pay the bill that is being run up now that he has switched back on the building's electricity meter.
"I'll even pay his utility bills," Krajewski told Corriere della Sera in an interview, referring to Salvini.
But the cardinal, who goes around town in street clothes delivering hot food and sleeping bags to Rome's homeless and has in the past arranged for them to have private viewings of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, prefers to move the matter to a higher plane.
"One talks about money, but that's not the first problem. There are the children. So the first question to be posed is — why are they there, for what reason?"
In a text message to The Associated Press, the cardinal, declining an interview, said of his actions: "The gesture speaks for itself."
Salvini had already railed against Francis for telling governments they mustn't close their borders to those in need like migrants. Eager to be Italy's next premier, he is working to unite far-right parties for the upcoming European Parliament elections, and in working the crowds at his rallies, he rails against what he mockingly calls Italy's do-gooders.
Among his targets are charities operating rescue boats in the Mediterranean, saving thousands of migrants from foundering, unseaworthy human traffickers' vessels.
Salvini's campaign cry, both now, and in the run-up to the 2018 Italian parliamentary election that brought Europe's first-all populist government to power, is "Italians first."
But many of those who have been living in the building since October 2013, largely before the first waves of hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers rescued at sea were brought to Italy's shores, are Italians. The seven-story building, a short walk from St. John in Lateran Basilica, is property of a state-run pension agency.
Among the homeless there is Andrea Alzetta. He called what Krajewski did "an act of courage."
"Someone, in this case, the pope's almsgiver, has taken on the task of getting his hands dirty, standing up and connecting the electricity again," Alzetta said. Taped on the door of one of the families who live there is a photo of Francis.
Krajewski says he'll pay any fine for putting his hands on the electricity meter.
"What do you want? It was a particular, desperate situation," the cardinal said. On May 6, the utility company had cut off the power because of the unpaid bill. A nun who volunteers there had alerted the cardinal to the power cutoff.
Lately, some of Italy's politics have turned ugly.
Last week at the Vatican, the pope greeted a Roma family, with 12 children, who recently were given Rome public housing. Encouraged by small, pro-fascist party, CasaPound, angry local residents had taunted the family, with one protester shouting if they didn't leave, the mother would be raped.
On Sunday, on a boulevard leading to St. Peter's Square, a handful of supporters of the extreme-right party Forza Nuova hoisted a banner denigrating the pope and demanding a stop to immigration.
Paolo Santalucia and Alessia Melchiorre contributed to this report.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio