Europe is at risk of becoming an “Islamic caliphate”, Italy’s populist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told an election rally as he campaigned in the country’s regional elections.

The Italian firebrand has launched an aggressive electoral campaign centred on the preservation of national identity and putting an end to illegal immigration with an eye to emerging as the largest party in the coming elections and a second vote for the European Parliament in May.

“Either Europe saves itself now, or it never will,” Mr Salvini said on Sunday. “Either we take it back, as we are doing with Italy, or it will become an Islamic caliphate with no hope or future.”

The comments were met with scorn by a woman in the crowd, who shouted “fascist” at the leader of the anti-immigrant League party.

Mr Salvini replied sending a kiss to the lady – as he often mockingly does to his opponents – and rejected the accusation. “We live in a democracy and we will not go back to fascism, Nazism or communism, what I’d like to see is more respect,” he said.

Increasingly hardline rhetoric has emanated from the campaign waged by the Italian official. On April 25 – which coincides with Italy’s national holiday in remembrance of the fall of fascism – Mr Salvini told a crowd of supporters in Sicily: “Our grandparents sacrificed themselves to stop foreigners from coming in. I am doing and will do exactly the same, because this is our home and Italians come first”.

A post on the minister’s Facebook page quoting his words was met by a flurry of comments. “Our grandparents and ancestors sacrificed themselves for democracy and everyone’s freedom (see 25 April), not for hating foreigners,” one user said.

Another one used Nelson Mandela’s words to condemn racism.

The Interior Minister, who also serves as deputy Prime Minister, has been the object of an array of lawsuits following his decision to close all Italian ports to rescue boats operated by humanitarian organisation to assist migrants at sea.

Last August, Mr Salvini was placed under investigation for alleged abuse of power and holding people against their will after the Italian coastguard ship, the Diciotti, was denied permission to disembark.

In February, a key committee voted not to lift his immunity to face a possible trial.

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