The prime minister of Italy, with President Obama at his side, downplayed reports Friday that Christian migrants were targeted for death by Muslims who threw them overboard and drowned them in the Mediterranean Sea during a recent crossing from Libya.
At a joint White House press conference, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in response to a reporter’s question that there is “not [a] problem of clash of religions in Italy.” Mr. Renzi portrayed the problem as a lack of stability in Libya that is prompting illegal immigration to Italy.
“The problem is not a problem of clash of religions,” Mr. Renzi said through an interpreter. “It’s a problem of human dignity. We are absolutely committed to solve this problem, and I am confident if this become a priority …”
The U.S. reporter who asked the question directed it at Mr. Renzi. Mr. Obama, who sometimes offers answers to questions posed to his foreign counterparts at joint press conferences, remained silent on the subject.
Police in Sicily reported Thursday that Muslim migrants had thrown 12 Christians overboard during a recent crossing from Libya. Palermo police said they had detained 15 people suspected in the high seas assault, which they learned of while interviewing tearful survivors from Nigeria and Ghana who were rescued at sea.
The survivors said they had boarded a rubber boat April 14 on the Libyan coast with 105 passengers aboard, part of the wave of migrants taking advantage of calm seas and warm weather to make the risky crossing from Libya, where most smuggling operations originate.
During the crossing, the migrants from Nigeria and Ghana — believed to be Christians — were threatened with being abandoned at sea by some 15 other passengers from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali and Guinea Bissau.
Eventually the threat was carried out and 12 were pushed overboard. The police statement said the motive was that the victims “professed the Christian faith while the aggressors were Muslim.”
The surviving Christians, the statement said, only managed to stay on board by forming a “human chain” to resist the assault.
Mr. Renzi said, “On the situation of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, I think Mediterranean is a sea and not a cemetery. The problem at this moment is the situation on the ground in Libya.”
He said 91 percent of the people who came from Africa to Italy come from Libya.
“Obviously, it is not easy,” Mr. Renzi said. “We work every day to find a solution with the United Nations and then with the other partners and the friends and allies in the region. But I think the only way is [to] come back to stability in Libya.”
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.