The pope’s visit to Lesbos and the invitation to the Great Mosque in Rome

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is to visit Lesbos on 16 April in a gesture of solidarity towards asylum seekers and refugees there.

The announcement came just two days after initial reports of a possible trip to the Greek island which, like Italy’s Lampedusa, finds itself on the front line in efforts to handle the huge influx of men, women and children from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking international protection in Europe.

The joint visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I would appear to have been organised in record time.

It is fantastic that Pope Francis is putting such effort into highlighting the terrible plight of migrants and refugees.

His first official visit as pope in 2013 was precisely to the tiny island of Lampedusa that is closer to North Africa than it is to mainland Sicily, and which has seen a staggering 400,000 migrants pass through its ‘doors’ in the last 20 years.

Last September, after European consciences were stirred briefly by the harrowing photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a Turkish beach, Francis invited all Catholic parishes to take in refugees.

Most recently, he chose to hold the Holy Thursday feet-washing rite at a reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA) in Castelnuovo di Porto, just down the road from Monterotondo.

However, as I read the news of the upcoming Lesbos visit I found myself wondering why the pope couldn’t put the same zeal into arranging an equally important and long-awaited visit to the Great Mosque in Rome.

He received a formal invitation from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which houses Europe’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Muslim house of prayer, on 20 January.

The invitation came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, even though both sides were said to have been working on the visit for around ten months.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at the time that the invitation had been accepted ”with gratitude and it will be considered. The Pope will see what to do.”

He also urged caution in speculation about a date, though qualified sources told ANSA that the parties were “working towards 10 April”, a Sunday.

Since then, with the exception of a couple of reports that Francis will visit the mosque “shortly”, there has been total silence.

This is a shame considering that Europe’s refugee crisis and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are in many respects two sides of the same coin, and also that the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe right now are Muslim.

 

Understanding Italy’s 17 April oil drilling referendum

I have been trying to get to grips with the 17 April referendum on offshore drilling in Italy for the purposes of a short news piece for Wanted in Rome.

However, reading around the subject in both English and Italian has left me totally befuddled.

There is a huge amount of information available but little of it seems to clarify what is actually at stake, and the wording of the referendum question doesn’t exactly help matters either (see photo below).

The question makes specific reference to two existing laws (the first on environmental protection dating to 2006 and the second the 2016 budget law, approved definitively by parliament at the end of last year) but without entering into the merits of the cited provisions, making an on-line search for the full texts unavoidable.

However, this immediately threw me into even greater confusion since the part of the 2006 law implicated in the referendum (the third sentence of the 17th paragraph of article 6) doesn’t appear to exist.

No matter: reading on it becomes clear that this missing sentence has in fact been substituted by a clause in the 2016 budget law establishing that existing licences for off-shore oil and gas prospecting and drilling are exempt from a ban on hydrocarbon exploration and production activities in Italy within 12 nautical miles of the coast for the useful life of the fields and in compliance with safety and environmental standards.

Put more simply, under the terms of the 2016 budget operating oilfields in territorial waters can have their concessions extended until the exhaustion of gas or oil.

So the main theme of the 17 April referendum is not whether oil companies should be allowed to drill in territorial waters – this is already banned for new projects – but rather how long existing concessions should last.

To paraphrase the referendum question, Italians are being asked if they want the exemption clause to be repealed so oilfields operating within 12 nautical miles of the coast are closed once their concessions expire, even if there are still resources in the subsoil.

They are not being asked to make an outright stand against oil drilling, and they are certainly not being asked to address the (crucial) issue of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

On a practical level, my understanding is that only three oilfields – Eni’s Guendalina and Edison’s Rospo in the Adriatic sea and Edison’s Vega in the Sicily Channel ­– are directly implicated in the outcome.

Assuming the quorum is reached (which is unlikely), and if the yes vote (to repeal the exemption to the drilling ban for the useful life of the oilfield) prevails, the concessionaires will be obliged to stop activities once their licences expire, mocking massive investment so far.

If the no vote prevails, things will carry on as normal and Italy will have wasted over 300 million euros of taxpayer money.

It seems to me to be a no-win situation.

Surely it would be better to use the referendum tool to address more urgent ethical issues facing Italy, such as same-sex marriage and adoption, end-of-life provisions and, why not, surrogate motherhood?

So far with the very vocal exception of health minister Beatrice Lorenzin (New Centre Right) the debate on this last issue has been defined almost entirely by men.

It would be interesting to know what the other half of the country thinks about it.

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