On the left, the old sign at Riace's entrance and, on the right, the one that replaced it, dedicated to the Saints Cosmas and Damian | Photo: ANSA
On the left, the old sign at Riace's entrance and, on the right, the one that replaced it, dedicated to the Saints Cosmas and Damian | Photo: ANSA

The new municipal government of the Calabrian town of Riace, in Italy, previously known for the way migrants were integrated into the local community, has replaced a sign at the entrance of the town describing it as ''welcoming'' with a new one dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian.

The administration, elected in May, removed the sign this week that had welcomed visitors for years. Riace's previous mayor Mimmo Lucano was once named among Fortune magazine's 50 most influential people in the world for his integration policies. He was invited to conferences around the world to speak about how integration could be done differently and feted by numerous organizations and world figures.

The German film director Wim Wenders made a half-hour documentary about Riace, entitled "Il Volo" (The Flight); while Italian State broadcaster RAI made a television series that was never aired.

In the last year though, under Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte's first administration, with Matteo Salvini's League Party and Luigi Di Maio's Five Star Movement (M5S) in power, Lucano was investigated and placed under house arrest and removed as mayor of the town. He was also banned from visiting the town for several months whilst the investigation and court cases against him proceeded. In the latest municipal elections earlier this year he was not re-elected. He is still under investigation for alleged irregularities in the reception of the migrants for whom Riace had become famous.

Replacement sparks controversy

The new administration's initiative has sparked a controversy. Critics say replacing the sign could be the first of other moves to change the town's stance on immigrants.

Over the past two decades, the hilltop medieval village abandoned by locals has welcomed migrant families to live and work as part of the community. Lucano was the architect of this program, offering refugees abandoned apartments and work.

The new mayor, Antonio Trifoli, attended the ceremony to change the sign together with two local priests, Father Giovanni Coniglio and Father Giovanni Piscioneri.

Trifoli personally fixed the road sign. Representatives for his administration have said the initiative is not politically motivated and instead commemorates the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the saints' remains in town.

The local sanctuary dedicated to Cosmas and Damian is visited by pilgrims from Calabria and beyond. A court in the Calabrian town of Locri on September 5 revoked Lucano's ban on residing in the coastal town. In March, the supreme Cassation Court ruled that Lucano's ban from returning to Riace should be annulled, saying that there was no evidence to back allegations of fraud or organizing arranged marriages. However, that decision did not wipe out charges over other alleged irregularities relating to the treatment of migrants.

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