Italian Hostage’s Release Erupts Into Clashes Over Islam and Ransom

ROME — When word surfaced last weekend that a kidnapped 24-year-old Italian aid worker had been released after 18 months in captivity in Africa, Italians were overjoyed after weeks of relentlessly gloomy coronavirus-driven news.

But from the moment she stepped off an Italian government plane on Sunday wearing a green jilbab — the full-length outer garment worn by some Muslim women — her welcome home became decidedly chillier, and even outright hostile.

The conversion of the young woman, Silvia Romano, to Islam, along with rumors that Italy had paid a ransom for her release, opened the dam to a deluge of insults on social media. She has also been met with threats, in an episode that has focused renewed attention on the anti-immigrant and anti-Islam commentary unleashed in Italy during the 15 months that Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League Party, served as the country’s interior minister until he was ousted last fall.

Since Monday, the police have been patrolling the Milan street where Ms. Romano lives, and a Milan prosecutor has opened an investigation into the onslaught of threatening messages directed toward her on social media. Supporters said it was as if she had been freed by her kidnappers only to be held hostage — in her home — by Italian haters.

For her part, Ms. Romano, who has not spoken publicly since her return, reached out on her private Facebook page on Thursday. “I ask you not to get mad to defend me. The worst has passed for me,” she wrote in a post visible only to friends. “I always followed my heart and it will never betray me.”

Ms. Romano, whose release reportedly occurred last Friday, was kidnapped in November 2018 in the Kenyan city of Chakama, near the town where she was volunteering with Africa Milele, an Italian aid organization whose name includes the Swahili word for “forever.”

Italian newspapers, citing a deposition Ms. Romano gave to prosecutors after her return, said that she had been abducted by a gang affiliated with the Shabab militant group. Prosecutors typically question victims in the aftermath of such cases.

From Kenya, Ms. Romano was taken — mostly on foot — to Somalia, a roughly four-week journey, during which she fell ill, news reports said. In Somalia, she was moved six times.

Italian news outlets, which said she had changed her first name to Aisha, reported this week that Ms. Romano had told prosecutors that she freely converted to Islam during her abduction. She denied rumors that she had been forced to marry one of her abductors and that she was pregnant, the reports said.

The case has stirred criticism that some Italian nongovernmental organizations are ill-prepared to handle the threats facing workers in some countries. It has also revived arguments about Italy’s purported propensity — which it has consistently denied — to pay ransom for the release of kidnapped Italians, a practice that is common elsewhere in Europe.

“As far as I am concerned, starting tomorrow, Italy should never again pay a ransom,” Mr. Salvini said in a televised interview on Thursday.

The government has not confirmed reports of a ransom in Ms. Romano’s case. Speaking on an Italian television program on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said that he was “not aware that a ransom had been paid.”

Ms. Romano’s conversion to Islam — and whether it was voluntary — held sway in the Italian news media for days. Parallels were drawn to the television series “Homeland,” in which Sgt. Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine held captive by Al Qaeda, converts to Islam and returns to the United States as a possible enemy agent.

“Converting after spending so many months under the pressure of mercenaries that use Islam as a cover to extort money from a state is a choice that opens a debate,” the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Muslim, wrote in an opinion piece in the newspaper La Repubblica on Tuesday.

The conversation also reached Parliament.

And while some members of Mr. Salvini’s party have been harsh in their condemnation of Ms. Romano, a line appeared to have been crossed on Wednesday when Alessandro Pagano, a League lawmaker, described her as a “neo-terrorist” during a debate about Italy’s coronavirus lockdown.

He chided the government for having greeted her at the airport on her return. Mr. Di Maio and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte — both of whom previously served in a coalition government with the League — were at Ciampino Airport near Rome on Sunday to meet Ms. Romano’s plane when it landed.

Lawmakers with the governing Democratic Party responded to Mr. Pagano with jeers, and the vice president of the lower house scolded him for using an “improper term.”

Mr. Pagano then cited an article published Tuesday in La Repubblica, in which Ali Dehere, identified as a Shabab spokesman, said that a ransom payment would be used for schools, food and medicine, and to buy weapons, “which we increasingly need for the jihad, our holy war.”

Mr. Dehere did not specify the amount of the ransom that he said had been paid for Ms. Romano’s release. Unsubstantiated news reports used figures as high as 4 million euro, about $4.3 million.

Mr. Pagano later said on Facebook that he had been criticizing the government and the possible ransom payment, and not Ms. Romano, who he said “could still be shaken by the terrible experience she had gone through.”

A front-page editorial in the conservative newspaper Il Giornale criticized Mr. Pagano under the headline “Criticism is a Right, Punishing Hatred a Duty” — although the newspaper’s own main headline on Monday had read: “Islamic and Happy. Silvia the Ungrateful.”

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, urged Italians to be more compassionate.

Commenting on Ms. Romano’s liberation after 535 days, “when practically all hope had been lost,” it noted that instead of joy, her release had produced “a tribunal of thousands of judges, almost all operating on social media, issuing sentences,” which it called a “list of horrors.”

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