Comment

Italy and the Vatican have put the British authorities to shame over Alfie Evans

Police stand guard outside Alder Hey Children's Hospital (Getty Images)

The commitment of the Italian government to human rights perhaps has not had the recognition it deserves.

Back in 2006, the Italian government granted asylum to a man called Abdul Rahman, who was an Afghan national, who was facing the death penalty in Afghanistan for the “crime” of converting to Catholicism. As everyone knew at the time, Abdul Rahman was granted a safe haven in Italy because Pope Benedict asked the then Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to intervene, and in Italy when the Pope asks for something like this, the government obliges.

That much can be deduced because some years later, in 2014, something very similar happened. A Sudanese woman Mariam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag, was accused of apostasy and was facing the death penalty. She too was eventually flown to safety in Rome, on a government plane, and was received by Pope Francis. Once more, the Italian government and the Vatican had been working together behind the scenes, in order to save someone from grave injustice. This time the Italian Prime Minister was Matteo Renzi, a rather different character to Berlusconi, who actually met Mrs Ibrahim at the airport on her arrival.

It is interesting to note that the Abdul Rahman case was treated with far greater discretion than the Ibrahim case. It is not known if Abdul Rahman had an audience with Pope Benedict or met Mr Berlusconi personally. Nor was his arrival covered by the press.

These two cases (and there may well be many other we do not know about) provide some context to help us understand why Alfie Evans has been granted Italian citizenship and offered a hospital place in Rome. Essentially, Pope Francis asked the Italian government to act, and they did, just as they had acceded to previous papal requests.

So what can we conclude? First of all, that the Papacy has an eye to, as well as a deep commitment to, human rights, which, as we should all know, transcend national boundaries. So too does the Italian government, whether it be one of the right (as Berlusconi) or the left (like Renzi’s).

This leads to a difficult and distressing question. If the Pope and the Italian government (and others too) see the Alfie Evans case in this way – that is a case of human rights – why can’t our own government and courts see it in the same way? The parents are only asking to take their child abroad for treatment; it is devastating that they are not allowed to do so. The intransigence of the British courts and a large swathe of British opinion on this matter makes Britain look as intolerant, in certain lights, as Sudan and Afghanistan.