by Jonathan Petre and Our Malta Correspondent
AS TENSIONS escalated in Malta after a rampaging mob ransacked Archbishop Joseph Mercieca's Curia. Cardinal Basil Hume attacked the Dom Mintoff Government on the eve of the Maltese Prime Minister's meeting with Mrs Margaret Thatcher.
In a letter to Mrs Thatcher on Monday, the Cardinal expressed serious concern over the Maltese Government's plans to take over Catholic schools on the island. He called on Mrs Thatcher to make it clear to Mr Mintoff that there was widespread dismay in Britain over attempts to curb religious freedom in Malta, and to remind the Maltese Prime Minister of the historic links between the two countries.
Following his message of support for Archbishop Mercieca, who decided over the weekend to postpone the opening of Catholic schools to avoid clashes between parents and police, the Cardinal said that concern has increased since the recent acts of violence against the Church.
On Friday a mob composed of government supporters attacked and desecrated the Archbishop's Curia, causing several thousand pounds worth of damage.
The attack came less than four days after a bomb was placed on the doorstep of the Archbishop's official residence. The bomb, however, failed to go off, In Friday morning's attack, the Curia was completely destroyed from the inside, although the exterior was untouched. The Archbishop's office and all other offices within the building were ransacked and a chapel which contained valuable sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings was desecrated.
The tabernacle in the chapel, from which the blessed sacrament had been removed at the last moment, was also seriously damaged.
Religious paintings, including one depicting the face of Jesus Christ, were torn to shreds, Holy statues were smashed and sacred vestments ripped up.
The attack took place a few hours after more than 400 government supporters, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister, Carmelo Misfud Bonnici, left Malta drydocks. at Cospicua. after an anti-Church demonstration.
The men drove to Valletta in lorries, forklift trucks and private cars.
When they reached the law courts, where a few days earlier the Government's attempts to take over Church property had been declared unconstitutional, they broke in and attacked various halls of the magistrates' courts.
The mob then followed Mr Bonnici to the Prime Minister's office. From there they headed towards the Curia where about 20 women were protesting against the Church's stand on fee paying schools. At the time
the Curia was closed and unoccupied, so the protesters handed their petition, in which they held the Archbishop responsible for any violence that might take place, to the Archbishop's private secretary in the nearby police headquarters.
Meanwhile, a group of dockworkers forced their way into the Curia through a back door and ransacked the place without anybody realising what was happening inside.
The situation in Malta had taken a turn for the worse after the Archbishop informed the Government that the Church still planned to reopen the eight schools which had not been granted operational licences. The Government has threatened to take over all Catholic schools in accordance with its declared aim to provide free education in all schools.
In a move designed to reduce tension. the Archbishop ordered that the 29 Catholic schools remain closed on Monday, the official start of the scholastic year. In a statement the Archbishop and Bishop Nikol Cauchi of Gozo said: "Church schools are all as one school and therefore none of the Church's schools will open."
More violence broke out on Saturday when Government supporters and police attacked a congregation leaving St John's Cathedral where the Archbishop had been marking the tenth anniversary of his episcopal ordination. A cleric of the society of Don Bosco had to be treated in intensive care and Dr Antoine Mifsud Bonnici, a nationist MP and the brother of the Deputy Prime Minister, was hit over the head with a police truncheon,
On Sunday Pope John Paul II expressed his concern at the situation and his support for the Archbishop.