It is dangerous enough for the tens of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy on rickety fishing boats without religious tension thrown into the mix.
But in an unthinkable tragedy within an already unimaginable situation, 15 Muslim asylum-seekers reportedly threw 12 Christian asylum-seekers overboard as they made their way from Libya to Sicily this week. “We only pray to Allah here,” the men said, according to others on the boat who said they clung together to protect the remaining Christians from being victims of religiously motivated murder at sea.
The incident took place Wednesday as 105 sub-Saharan Africans were facing trouble at sea in an inflatable rubber dingy that was losing air fast. According to survivors who were rescued by the Italian coast guard, the boat was sinking and everyone started praying to his or her deity of choice.
Apparently a group of 15 men asked the Christians to stop praying because only Allah would answer their Islamic prayers. When a young Christian man cried loudly asking God to not let the boat capsize, two Muslim men grabbed him by the neck and threw him overboard, according to witness accounts. Then, a group of Muslim men started throwing all who were praying with their hands clasped together overboard. Fifteen men were arrested when their rescue ship reached Palermo. The prosecutor there says they will face multiple counts of aggravated manslaughter.
According to Palermo police reports after interviews with survivors, the 15 men, who were from Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, were apparently feisty and antagonistic from the start of the trip, which is in stark contrast to the majority of migrants who are often so tired and afraid that they spend most of the journey in a state of shock. In an interview with La Repubblica, one of the survivors said, “They seemed crazy, they were out of control. They just grabbed the boy and threw him in the water because he was praying. We tried to stop them but they killed many,” the witness said. “We made a human chain with all of our hands so they couldn’t push more people overboard.”
Monsignor Giancarlo Perego, head of the Vatican’s Foundation for Migrants, warned that the incident may have just been a “moment of fury” and not an outright act of Christian persecution. “We need not to exaggerate the facts and turn this into religious hate,” he told reporters in Rome.
On Friday, a group of 70 migrants, including a six-month old baby, with severe burns were rescued from a sinking rubber dinghy. They told authorities that a gas canister had exploded while they were waiting to board the vessel, but because of the backlog of migrants in the Libyan port, the traffickers forced them on the vessel anyway. They were at sea for two days before being rescued, and 23 were airlifted to burn centers on the Italian mainland.
Early Friday morning, an Italian-flagged fishing vessel was commandeered by unknown gunmen who later claimed to be part of the Libyan coast guard. The Italian navy, which is running a defense mission along the Libyan coast near Italy’s offshore oil platforms, had to wrest back control of the ship, which was apparently headed toward Misrata, said Giovanni Tumbiolo, head of the Italian fisherman’s association. Early reports suggest the seven-man crew was locked in the ship’s lower compartment.
The seizure of the Italian ships is yet another incident in what is fast-becoming anarchy on the high seas. The European Union’s Frontex border-control agency said last week that one of their rescue ships patrolling the waters under their Triton mission was fired upon by armed traffickers who wrestled back one of the trafficking boats. In early April, an Italian coast guard ship also reported coming under fire as it rescued migrants.
The recent violent incidents play into fears in Italy that there are Islamic extremists among the genuine refugees trying to reach safety. In February, ISIS threatened to march on Rome, putting Italians on edge with even politicians warning that the boat people coming from Libya could be a conduit for jihadi fighters to sneak into the country. More than 11,000 people have been rescued at sea after leaving Libya and brought to safety on Sicily since April 11. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is visiting the United States this week, says he will ask President Barack Obama for support to tackle the problem in Libya. When the leaders meet in Washington on Friday, he is expected to ask for American drone surveillance over the Mediterranean to help with anti-terrorism surveillance.
Back in Italy, the boats keep coming. On Friday, Italy’s coast guard said it expects as many as a dozen ships are now leaving Libyan ports every day, carrying anywhere between 50 and 500 people.