Comparisons are odious. But one is hard pressed to find a more hateful comparison to the devil. “The people miming Beelzebub” baffled Lino Spiteri the former labour Minister as he was on his way to the Tokk meeting in Gozo.
Spiteri was present along with other Labourites when they spotted fervent Catholics sauntering around on the Rabat hills whilst grabbing their behinds. “It was a bizarre moment which would be perfectly captured on film,” he says.
Spiteri says that it took him a while to realise that the catholic crowd were trying to show the Labourites that they believed them to be the devil incarnate.
Reminiscent of the fear of God inspired by the Inquisition; the Maltese Church attempted to manoeuvre the political scene in its favour. So the Labour executive and supporters became accustomed, but never immune to being accused of doing the devil’s work by members of their own community.
The curia was convinced that Mintoff’s socialism was a Trojan horse for communism. At the apex of the cold war the extreme sense of paranoia had found its breeding ground amongst Malta’s most conservative echelons.
Clergymen, Azzjoni Kattolika and MUSEUM had mobilised women and children, some of whom were carrying banners and sticks. After every meeting women known as tal-Parfum took to the streets to disinfect the area where the labourites had convened.
Back at it-Tokk, the Church had issued an unofficial order to all the shopkeepers to shutdown their business for the day and all public facilities including the latrines were also locked up.
Paul Caruana, the father of Gozitan Labour MP Justyne Caruana says that it was hard to accept that their fellow Gozitans were suddenly taunting them and hurling stones. “I was hit by a lady with a wooden stick and we had stones thrown at us as well,” says Caruana who was 14 years old at the time. The church-bells tolled throughout the meeting and ‘Ghawdex ma’ l-Isqof’ was inscribed on a banner hung on the façade of the church of San Gakbu.
Realising that it was useless to continue the meeting, Anton Buttigieg halted his speech about the party’s intentions for the Civic Councils. He addressed the hollering mob around the square “saffru saffru issa l-guvintur jitilqu lejn l-Awstarlja u intom tibqghu ssaffru.”
The meeting was stopped halfway through because it was too chaotic and dangerous for the people attending the meeting. The police eventually closed off the square, preventing people from leaving or entering.
Anton F Attard who was 18 at the time told MaltaToday that he couldn’t bear the noise and walked out, so he was not allowed back in. Caruana remembers being terrified by the banshee screeching and the verbal and physical abuse that he encountered with his father at Ghajnsielem. They had taken a detour to get back home and so they climbed their way through Mgarr ix-Xini to get back to Xewkija.
On the otherhand, Labour MP Evarist Bartolo candidly articulates the part he played in this saga as a ten-year-old boy on the otherside of the battlefield as a child coming from a Nationalist background. He says that the fear, self-righteousness and visceral hatred instigated by the local priest spurred children on to commit those heinous acts. Whenever the camarilla of children spotted Labourites commuting to and fro from Gozo meetings they paraded around with flags displaying the Pope’s emblem. And singing “Ghalxejn l-ghedewwa iridu jkissru il-hitan tal- belt imqaddsa tieghek il-belt tal-Vatikan” at the which the labourites retorted: “Ghalxejn l-ghedewwa iridu jfarku il-partit tal Malta Labour Party, immexxi mill-perit.”
Anton F Attard from Rabat, Gozo remembers priests making insinuations and sometimes-blatant declarations against the MLP and Mintoff during mass. “It was a constant crusade against the MLP,” he says. “I clearly remember that priests would refuse to give absolution to Labourites during confession and the often mentioned the mortal sin.” Attard was 18 years old in May 1961 when the infamous “Tokk meeting” took place in the Gozitan capital of Rabat. At the time the MLP was fighting for the Sitt Punti. Labourites who were present at the meeting and revealed their memories to this newspaper draw parallels to the persecution suffered by early Christians in the Roman Empire. But not all priests supported the interdiction at the time.
Dun Ang Seychell was against the “calumnious interdiction” but when “he had to choose loyalties” he ultimately chose the church. Seychell attended rallies organised by the Gunta but never took part in any of the “disgusting episodes.” The father of Labour MP Justyne Caruana says that his family suffered repercussions in their personal life due to political bigotry.
Even nowadays Gozitan society is more insular. The church has a tighter grip on people than in Malta and is less secular. Back then it was extremely degrading for the parish priest to skip someone’s house during the ritual Easter blessings. “I was denied Holy Communion and confession. I was sent away from the altar myself being told that I could not receive Holy Communion because I was a Mintoffian,” Caruana says.
Also read Part 1 of the Unholy War: