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February 1 2012 | ROME, ITALY

The Community of Sant'Egidio celebrates the 44 th anniversary. A Look at 2011

Eucharistic Liturgy, Basilica of St. John Lateran, at 18.30

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A year put to use to humanize the life of the poor during the crisis, a year of growth in the world’s South and in Europe. Commitment to reduce widespread violence in big cities, efforts for peace, prayer, culture and dialogue between believers and generations.

It was a difficult year for the world and Italy. The Community of Sant’Egidio, in 73 countries around the world, lived “inside the crisis”, trying to provide an answer of humanization a some good news: Gospel, friendship, poverty, “Church for everyone and especially the poor”, a commitment renewed in the year in which the 50th anniversary of the opening of the II Vatican Council is celebrated. 

In 2011 Africa was once again at the center of attention in order to built concrete alternatives to the desire to escape, to epidemics, to the absence of lawfulness and to abuse, heightened among other things by the failure to register births.  The year that just came to an end witnessed the growth of the Community in Sub-Sahara Africa and the ability to contribute to hope in difficult situations in a concrete manner. 

In every African country, and also in the Americas and Asia as well as in Western and Eastern Europe, the Community of Sant’Egidio, whether it be small or numerous, new or more experienced, led the way in personal and collective prayer and service to the poor, by proposing concrete initiatives for reconciliation in the field and at the cultural level, and to stem, in a positive way, temptations of intolerance, fear of the poor, which the economic crisis has intensified toward immigrants, children, the disabled, the elderly, gypsies and other social and religious minorities. A year on the streets, in which the world’s problems were always, to some measure, also the problems of the Community: the right to treatment denied, the violence of young gangs, the isolation of the elderly no longer limited to Europe and the developed world, with migrations viewed as a danger and not as a chance, in a time of crisis, and with the downfall of a sense of common good and solidarity. Prayer, friendship, the poor: a daily effort to mend the reasons for living together in societies worried about the financial crisis or tempted by ethnic and civil conflicts from the simplification of clashes between groups and the risk of religious exploitation.

The alternatives to the growth of widespread violence have involved tens of thousands of people and introduced the condition of the elderly, mute victims ignored by the global crisis on the continent, into the agenda of young societies and of African and Latin American institutions. With an important response from governments and local administrations at the start of a process that in coming years will become more acute and require immediate answers today. 2011 saw the fulfillment of unthinkable goals, like population registration systems through the BRAVO! program for three million people in Burkina Faso, while a project for the improvement of birth registration facilities in Sub Sahara Africa, with pan-African course and the inception of infrastructures in other  countries.

But it was also a year in which the DREAM program expanded to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and in which the program demonstrated how universal access to therapy reduced the thrust of transmission of the virus and puts it into remission.

But the presence of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Africa can be interpreted in other ways, thousands of individual stories of liberation and resurrection, a true answer to “Afro-pessimism”. Like the first group of students from the “Florbert Bwana Chuy” School in Goma, a zone tormented by war and natural tragedies, registered in high schools. Thousands of prisoners in African jails who can sleep on mats, eat, have contact with the outside world, redeemed and released after finishing their sentences. There were also the initiatives of dialogue and pace in Nigeria, the maturing of the Community’s presence in the Ivory Coast, which enabled the community to mediate and solve conflicts between Christians and Muslims, preventing retaliation in cases of attacks on churches and mosques, creating a joint regional council that became a structure of reconciliation after the civil war.

There is also an Africa outside Africa with a cultural connection and solidarity that involves other continents. As illustrated by the creation of a Africa Cocktail Café in Moscow to support a cure fort Aids and handicraft programs for the elderly in Italy and other countries in support for the elderly and children in Africa, the long-distance adoptions of entire villages and, on another level, the request from the Senegalese presidency to the Community of Sant’Egidio for an official undertaking for reconciliation in the historic conflict secessionist conflict of Casamance. The humanization of conditions in African jails, witnessed, with a mirror image, by the Communities of the rest of the world involved in the campaign of “liberate prisoners”; manifestations of solidarity and support from Italian and European prisons for those in the South of the world (while a decisive public initiative in favor of amnesty and a reform of the justice and punishment is underway in Italy at a time of dramatic overcrowding and the drop in alternative measures to confinement and re-integration). Treatment for eye diseases begun in Kinshasa, work with the elderly and street children in Savé, Benin, the schools of peace of the Communities that prevent lynching’s, represent some of the local responses to problems that afflict immense portions of the population, like the fight against malnutrition and initiatives for health education and prevention, which have reached about one million people.

The people involved and the experience of the Communities become schools of democracy, inequalities are overcome in and “evangelical” democracy that becomes contagious and an element of renewal of civil societies: the activists of the “Women for a Dream” movement who, isolated twice, as women and as diseased and still more isolated because of poverty conditions, today represent the hope for a continent demoralized by AIDS and represent the example and the trigger for a society in which there is more balance between man and woman. A world of “opposites”, which the poor acquire a name and a dignity, no longer perceived as a danger to society, and can live once again with dignity. This can be gleaned by the letter of gratitude sent by the beggars of Conakry to the Community, which, among other recognitions, is one of the most delicate and profound.

2011 was a year enlightened by the beatification in May of Pope John Paul II: a special presence for the Community, which experienced the arrival of the icon of  the blessed Wojtyla at Sant’Egidio and in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. A year of closeness to Pope Benedict XVI, of meetings and expressions of encouragement before and during the International Meeting of Dialogue and Prayer for Peace held in Munich on the tenth anniversary of the attack against the World Trade Center and the 25th of Assisi. Pope Benedict’s message strongly reiterated the need for “the spirit of Assisi” and of uninterrupted efforts to strengthen it and expand it in diverse contemporary cultures.

Dialogue between cultures and believers all over the planet, without fear for differences, is confirmed as a key for building the art of coexistence in complex situations and always as a possible alternative to conflict and individual and collective violence. The spirit of Assisi which is not irenics, but a concrete effort, difficult, at time risky, to overcome conflicts and discrimination, which involves sacrifices all the way to the sacrifice of life. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Assisi coincided with the testimony and martyrdom of Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of minorities in Pakistan, a spiritual friend of the Community killed in a terrorist attack at the beginning of the year. His commitment with the Community continued with his brother, Paul Bhatti, who returned to Pakistan to work on behalf of dialogue and the minorities. The year past can also be re-traced with a glance at Asia and closer contact with Christians in trouble or with Christians under attack in Nigeria and other parts of the world. But also with an eye toward the Community’s construction and consolidation in troubled regions: a capillary daily experience of teaching peace and dialogue, which produces results in society: the first 27 children adopted at a distance in Indonesia who registered in universities.

From the experience of Bhatti and of the delivery of his Bible to the Basilica of San Bartholomew on the Tiber Island other concrete initiatives sprung: the Community that started new services for the elderly, like in Hohannabad, from Pakistan to India. Always accompanied by cultural initiatives, like the International Conferences of dialogue with the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow and with other Orthodox churches on Charity, Old-age as a Gift, martyrdom and symbolic figures like Xu Guangqi. Dialogue and culture. But also culture that becomes communication, dimension and personal commitment, daily initiatives (the prayers and meetings on the outskirts of Rome and other cities in cases of urban violence, like the murder of Maricica Hahaianu, which have equivalencies in other countries in the face of similar events). 

A year of Sant’Egidio, all over the world, is a year spent with children, immigrants, Gospel schools, schools of peace, youth movements, from the land of the Rainbow to Youths for Peace, to “Long-live the elderly” and “Friends”: the frontiers of difference nationalities, abilities and disabilities and ages acquire a different meaning and become a habit of coexistence in a plural world.

Hard to describe, impossible to unify. Sensitivities spread and, with time, create small communities, places of communicating the Gospel, work for peace and for humanity. From Haiti to Cuba, from Antwerpen to Washington, from Paris to San Salvador. And which, in special times, become close, with local capacities, in a global fashion in the big emergencies: from the earthquake in Japan to the hunger crisis on the Horn of Africa and Kenya. Always “local”. Creating new service for the poor, for the elderly, from Kivu to Cuba, with concrete initiatives in the field in defense of the life of the elderly and children from waves of violence and accusations of witchcraft, which spark processes of summary executions in Malawi and other African regions.

The eve of the Community’s celebration coincided with the wake and funeral of a  leading figure in the history of a democratic Italy in Sant’Egidio and Santa Maria in Trastevere: Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who passed shortly after the conclusion of the 15oth anniversary of Italian Unity. A secular celebration which nonetheless represented for Sant’Egidio a particular reason for engagement for the country and prayers for the country’s unity in a very difficult time, marked by disruptions and a long fog that for a long time blocked the political system and the search for shared solutions for the common good. It was not formal the anniversary that the Friends movement interpreted artistically, with courage and creativity, from the show “Noi, l’Italia (We, Italy)” to the exceptional event “I/O Io è un altro” at the Venetian Biennial and the 150 works by disabled artists displayed at a show at the Quirinale inaugurated by President Giorgio Napolitano.  

The story that emerges serves as a footprint for a year that was tough for the poor and for those who felt the crisis more than others. The Community tried to convey to public opinion the problems of those who were severely overwhelmed by the countries difficulties, particularly numerous families, youths and the elderly who are alone, through press conferences and releases, demonstrations in neighborhoods and solidarity marches on the growingly frequent episodes of racism. 
The march of October 16 with the Jewish community of Rome has become an annual event. Along with the remembrance of the deportation to Auschwitz on Platform 21 of the Milan train station (and all over Europe, in Buenos Aires and other parts of Latin America) have become part of a Day of citywide memory and an occasion to defend all minorities.

However, the economic crisis has intensified a climate of social conflict and simplification, the temptation to exploit hardship and the collapse of quality in welfare systems. In this context, the Community decided to continue the initiatives on behalf of the poor, with Guides to Where to Eat, Sleep and Wash up published in Rome, Barcelona and other big cites and intensified its efforts as a social observatory. News conferences on gypsies, the elderly, immigrants and other deprived people, statistics circulated on the “hidden” victims of the economic crisis: constant actions all through the year. The innovative capability of the “Friends Restaurant” made it a school for new professions in the field of restaurants for the disabled, an opposite trend with respect to the dynamics of labor. A particular effort produced the first Poverty Report in Rome and Lazio.

Observatory and proposals beyond the ideological divide: a years-long proposal for a new law to grant citizenship to immigrants, starting with the children. An educational and anthropological initiative: the summer at Lampedusa with the immigrants, in Albania, in Africa with the poor and cultural efforts to restore dignity and strength to the commitment to volunteer service in a period dominated by economic factors. The highest point came with the national conference “Friends of the Poor” on volunteerism and charity in Naples, which attracted over a hundred Catholic associations in a joint effort with the Pope John XXIII Community.

It was a year marked by problems for gypsies and immigrants. On behalf of the Rom, in Rome and other Italian and European cities, particularly in East Europe, the Community intensified its public commitment and efforts with civil authorities to stop the evacuations and stem a sense of insecurity and widespread anti-gypsy sentiment. The death of 4 children in a fire in a mobile home in Rome led the Community to request a day of mourning and, with the Church of Rome, to launch an extraordinary plan for housing and education. The death in the Mediterranean of a growing number of immigrants was another key issue in the Community’s dialogue with civil society and institutions for the sake of defeating temptation of fear and the criminalization of immigrants in times of epoch-making change, like what is going on in the Arab world.

In a nutshell, it is hard to describe a year in the life of the Community, which cannot be limited to the success achieved in a time of growing difficulties for everyone. A special year for Europe. If a center is sought in actions that cannot be traced to a single major event, in 2011 this was perhaps Europe. And the need to contrast, as far as possible, the European withdrawal into its own problems in a slow but growing erosion of a European, or pro-European identity Not just “Eurafrica”, but a direct commitment in many countries for a “European” way of thinking in a time of Euro-scepticism and international problems concentrated on the economic problems of the “Euro” zone. Channels of communication and cooperation were created with the leading figures of the “Arab spring” and of  the changes going on in the Mediterranean, from Tunisia, to Libya and Egypt, without forgetting age-old solidarities, like that with the Balkans. The choice of Sarajevo as the site for the next international inter-religious conference for peace, in September 2012, represents a point of arrival of this commitment, which characterized 2011 with the Community’s involvement: an important step for dialogue, a challenge for coexistence in the most martyred zone of Europe. Ecumenical dialogue continued with, among other things, meetings with the Serbian patriarch Irinej and the Romanian patriarch Daniel, and growingly friendly ties with the patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow, as cited in a personal letter from Patriarch Kirill, as well as with the most important Islamic organizations, from Indonesia to the Ivory Coast.

Dialogue made it possible to achieve in the course of 2011 important and positive progress in the fight for life and to stop the death penalty in the world. An innovative and institutional battle that, in coordination with other organizations and with the Italian government, contributed to blocking the exportation to the U.S. of one of the three substances used in lethal injections. The Community also had a direct role in contributing to the definitive abolition of the death penalty in Mongolia and Benin. The Community of Sant’Egidio continued efforts to fortify the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, founded in Rome in 2002, and expanded the “Cities against the death penalty” movement to almost 1,500 cities and the impact of the International Day of Cities for Life. The first pan-Caribbean Conference against the death penalty, promoted by the Community in cooperation with the Spanish government, held in Madrid in October, gave way to the creation of the Coalition of the Greater Caribbean for Life.   

A year of spiritual growth, marked by 970 Christmas lunches which served meals to close to 150,000 people in more than 70 countries. The organization of these meals was helped by over 10,000 new volunteers: a sign of generosity, a response to the growing numbers of poor people, of people who are alone, as well as an enhanced willingness that the Gospel may reawaken.

Sant’Egidio at 44 in the snapshot of the Christmas meals, which require a lot of preparation and express the beauty of  societies when they manage to show respect for the poor: the sacrament of honoring the poor in practice and the unity between the sacrament of the dining table and the sacrament of the altar. Prayer and the poor, according to a dear deceased friend, the theologian Olivier Clement. That is what the Community of Sant’Egidio tried to experience, with all its limits.

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