Matteo Salvini slipped the rosary out of his pocket right before Premier Giuseppe Conte began his speech to Parliament. He took it out and kissed it again midway through the address, just as Conte began admonishing him for exploiting his Catholic faith for political ends.

The Interior Minister's blatant brandishing of Catholic symbols has gone down in Italy as one of the most significant exchanges of his successful bid to topple Conte's 14-month-old Government, which collapsed this week after Salvini's League party withdrew its support.

Right-wing populists in the United States and Europe have increasingly invoked their Christian roots to justify policies against Muslims and other migrants, but Salvini's gestures and rhetoric have carried particular resonance since they directly challenge those of Italy's other major figure: Pope Francis.

Francis has made caring for migrants a hallmark of his papacy, travelling to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in 2013 in his first trip as pope to comfort would-be refugees who survived shipwrecks and smugglers to reach Europe. He brought 12 Syrians home with him when he visited a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, three years later, and he has turned over Vatican apartments to house new arrivals to Italy.

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Salvini's challenge to Francis' core message has not gone unnoticed by the Vatican or the Italian Catholic Church, although it remains to be seen whether his explicit religious display will resonate with rank-and-file Italians.

Although Italy is a majority Catholic country, many Italians don't go to church regularly and support abortion, contraception and other secular practices that are anathema to orthodox Catholic doctrine.

Former Premier Matteo Renzi of the opposition Democratic Party was quick to point out Salvini's apparent hypocrisy, noting that if he were such a good Catholic, he would also know that the Gospel verse Matthew 25 reads: "I was a stranger and you did not invite me in" — essentially a God-given mandate for all Christians to welcome the most vulnerable of foreigners.

"If you believe in those values, let those people disembark who are now stuck at sea, hostages of a shameful Government policy," Renzi told Salvini in Parliament, referring to the weeks-long standoff over a boatload of migrants rescued by an aid group.

Giuseppe Orsina, political science professor at Rome's Luiss University, said Salvini's message is falling on an Italian electorate that has always been highly politicised and polarised, and that he didn't think voters would be swayed one way or the other by his newly emphasised faith.

"Those who liked Salvini before will read it positively, and those who are against him will read it badly," Orsina said. But he noted that Salvini, like all populists, is a keen observer of public opinion and adapts accordingly. "If he does it, it's because there has been a positive reaction," he said.

Salvini is hoping to force early elections that could see his right-wing League continue its soaring popularity alongside other populist forces in Europe that have capitalised on anti-migrant, anti-European Union sentiment. The 5-Star Movement, which had governed Italy alongside the League in an uncomfortable alliance after inconclusive elections last year, must weigh now whether it can cobble together an alternative majority in Parliament.

For months, Salvini — a divorced father of two children by two women — has been kissing rosaries, invoking the Madonna and quoting St John Paul II at political rallies to try to get Italian Catholics to support his nationalist message. He has lashed out when questioned on it, as he did on Wednesday when Conte admonished him for his politicised displays of faith during a speech in the Senate.

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"Italians vote with their head and heart, and I am proud to proclaim that I believe," Salvini said. "And I never asked for protection for me, but for the Italian people."

Italians witnessed pious displays of Catholicism in the immediate post-World War II period, which was marked by visceral anti-communism, but Italian politicians in general respected the constitutional separation of church and state, said Massimo Faggioli, a theologian at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

"Salvini has changed this," said Faggioli, recalling that Salvini is a fan of the "other pope" — retired Pope Benedict XVI, who has become the nostalgic standard-bearer for the right wing of the US and European church that is vehemently opposed to Francis. "So his use of the rosary ... and his preference for Benedict XVI over Francis is clearly instrumental," Faggioli said. "But Italians tend to be cynical in these things and they do not mind too much the sudden changes in a politician."

One of Francis' top advisers, though, does. The Reverend Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica and a key hand behind Francis' communications strategy, has been one of Salvini's fiercest critics, regularly tweeting his disapproval of the latest in Italian politics.

"We have seen an exploitation of rosaries, crucifixes — images that are dear to the devotion of believers that have been taken from their context to serve politics," Spadaro lamented to La Repubblica this week.

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, who heads the Italian bishops' conference, which has been badly divided over Salvini's rise, said he had a more lay vision of political life that keeps blatant displays of faith out of the public sphere. "Religiousity should be expressed in church and places of worship," he said when asked about Salvini's rosary display in Parliament.

Francis himself has declined to be drawn into Italy's political manoeuvring, regularly ducking questions about it during his in-flight news conferences.

- AP