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Immigrants And Labor: The Pope's Message For An Italian Chinatown

The pontiff's visit to Tuscany brings him to the historic textile town of Prato, where Chinese workers have flocked to toil in what are often very inhuman circumstances. These are the faithful Francis wishes to see.

A Chinese New Year's celebration in Tuscany
A Chinese New Year's celebration in Tuscany
Paolo Crecchi

PRATO — Chen Xiaopoing was baptized Pietro, but he won't go to see the Pope because there are coats and jackets to deal with. Hu Songhua bears a Christian name, Francesco, but that makes no difference, as there are jeans due for delivery.

Pietro and Francesco are lucky to be praying today in the Christian parish of Prato's Chinese community, because the owners of the textile companies where they work are tolerant Buddhists. Most of the other owners of clothing factories in this textile town that has been overtaken by Chinese workers are post-cultural-revolution atheists who don't give their employees such freedom. There's work to do on Sundays, and the same certainly goes for Tuesday, when Pope Francis will speak at Prato's cathedral before going on to Florence.

No doubt he will remind the faithful of his message that "black market work is a disgrace" and that "rest is a right."

Mass in Chinese

Here in Prato, Father Paolo Hui, who celebrates holiday masses in Chinese, has a written memo handy about the Chinese Christians here: "They work 18 hours a day, every day, and they need to ask permission to pray. They sleep in warehouses. They don't let them come to mass. I am going to inform His Holiness."

More placidly, Father Francesco Bellato reflects on Far Eastern cultures where rest isn't a given. "Those who come to Prato do so to set aside money before going home, and if you tell them that it isn't Christian to make someone work from dawn until the dark of night — and what's more, it's inhuman — they'll say that if that's that case, there was no use leaving China," he says.

Pope Francis insisted on adding a stop in Prato "because here you encounter the problems of multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, of tolerance and integration — in short, of the periphery of existence," the pontiff wrote in a letter to Bishop Franco Agostinelli. The bishop then sent a letter to the parish priests, asking them to inform the faithful that "the Pope is expecting them, so they should not be afraid of any inconveniences their attendance at mass would cause." In other words, Father Hou notes, they should not fear reproachful bosses.

Father Bellato offers a slightly different interpretation, suggesting that the Pope was referring instead to "each individual's conscience."

"Integration is one of our goals, but it doesn't match their ultimate desire, which is not to let down those they left behind," he says. "Do you know that the sacrament we perform the least frequently is that of the last rites, because as soon as they understand that their time is near, they book a plane ticket."

A difficult reception

But Prato, home to Italy's largest Chinese community, with over 30,000 residents, is starting to change. Last June, with the blessing of the police, 150 fashion companies signed an agreement with the private security group Vigilanza Lince to stop something cynically described as the "Chinese ATM" phenomenon.

"Since they walk around carrying their money, whenever some thug in upper Tuscany needs cash, he comes to Prato, beats up a Chinese guy and stuffs his pockets," says Francesco Rossi, who coordinates the project. Thanks to the involvement of Vigilanza Lince, the number of such attacks has dropped by 75%.

Mayor Matteo Biffoni confirms too that there has been progress in converting dubious textile businesses into legal operations and improving the lives of working immigrants here. A warehouse fire two years ago killed seven people and led to reforms. "On the issues of worker safety and human rights, we have adopted a zero tolerance policy," Biffoni says. "In terms of statistics, the number of people requesting Italian citizenship has doubled, and for them, that effectively means cutting off ties with their homeland."

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