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By Claudio Lavanga

ROME — More than 40 Syrians were flown to Italy Monday as part of an program run by a Roman Catholic group, an effort that stood in contrast to President Donald Trump's recent order restricting travel from some Muslim-majority nations.

The 41 mainly women and children had fled the cities of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo and were been living in refugee camps in Lebanon. After undergoing a lengthy vetting process, they were flown on a commercial airliner to Rome where they are being offered free housing and education by Comunita di Sant’Egidio, the lay order running the program.

Sima, a 7-year-old Syrian refugee from Homs, plays with a balloon as her mother M'aha Aleweir holds her 3-year old sister Sidra upon their arrival at Rome's Fiumicino International Airport on Monday. Alessandra Tarantino / AP

“We welcome them, are moved to tears,” Marco Impagliazzo, the president of Sant’Egidio, told journalists after the Syrians landed in Rome. “We need to offer refuge and a safe passage to those who flee wars. We need to build bridges, not walls.”

While not mentioning Trump by name, Impagliazzo's comments seemed clearly directed at the new U.S. president who has made building a wall on the United States' southern border with Mexico one of his signature policies.

On Sunday, Trump defended his controversial executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations and indefinitely banning Syrian refugees amid a second day of protests and uncertainty around the ban.

The Italian rehousing plan — the first of its kind in Europe, according to Sant’Egidio — was introduced in 2015. It aims to offer refugees safe passage to Europe on commercial flights before they officially apply for asylum, and help them avoid the often deadly Mediterranean crossing.

An average of 14 people died every day in the Mediterranean Sea during 2016, the highest number ever recorded, according to the United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR.

Sant’Egidio has helped take 540 refugees — most of them Syrian — to Italy since 2015, and aims to raise that number to 1,000 by the end of 2017.