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.


Richiedente asilo del Gambia violentato da italiano

Talvolta sono i migranti e richiedenti asilo a compiere aggressioni e abusi ai danni di donne e uomini nei paesi di accoglienza, come nella terribile notte di Capodanno a Colonia e in diverse altre città della Germania.

Ma a volte succede anche il contrario, ed è bene dirlo per correttezza e completezza d’informazione e per mettere freno ai populismi che cercano di imporre la loro narrazione semplicistica e monodimensionale ai danni della coesione e della solidarietà sociale.

E’ il caso di un richiedente asilo diciottenne del Gambia, giunto in Italia dopo una traversata in mare e ora ‘ospite’ (passatemi il termine) del centro di accoglienza per i richiedenti d’asilo (CARA) di Mineo, la cui triste vicenda è riportata oggi dall’agenzia Ansa.

Sarebbe stato violentato da un 23enne italiano nella stazione di Termini Imerese mentre si stava recando in visita da un suo connazionale. Il giovane è riuscito infine a dare l’allarme e l’aggressore è stato identificato e arrestato con l’accusa di violenza sessuale grazie ad alcuni dati sul cellulare. La polizia scientifica ha trovato tracce biologiche nella sala d’attesa della stazione che potrebbero confermare l’aggressione, permettendo forse al ragazzo gambiano un giorno di ottenere giustizia.

La protezione internazionale è un’altra storia.

Una scialuppa in mezzo al mare, ovvero l’accoglienza dei profughi a Monterotondo

IMG_0682So che il Natale è finito da un pezzo, ma nella chiesa di Gesu Operaio a Monterotondo è rimasto un presepe che ho scoperto solo oggi, e che desidero condividere con i miei lettori.

L’allestimento progettato e realizzato da Franco Iannelli s’incentra sul tema dell’accoglienza dei profughi in arrivo dal mare.

Invece della tradizionale capanna, la sacra famiglia è sistemata in una scialuppa in mezzo al mare, con Giuseppe che tende la mano verso due profughi aggrappati al bordo. Uno di loro tiene in braccio un bambino in fasce che allunga verso la barca, per metterlo in salvo. Sullo sfondo, ‘l’isola della speranza’, un paesaggio povero ma lindo, con le case illuminate da dentro e le porte spalancate e con le persone che sono in attesa di ricevere i nuovi arrivati.

E noi?


La Repubblica on refugee reception by parishes and the difficulties faced by Muslims in explaining Islam

Two articles in today’s La Repubblica newspaper caught my eye.

One was an article by Jenner Meletti on the number of parishes across Italy that have responded to Pope Francis’s September call to open their doors to refugees. The answer is: painfully few. The reason may also have to do with legal and bureaucratic constraints – to the best of my knowledge the church is being involved in the primary reception (accoglienza primaria) of people whose immigration status is as yet uncertain – but it nonetheless remains a sad testament to the difficulty of showing concrete solidarity even in the face of such urgent need.

(For the record I have myself enquired about the possibility of hosting refugees in my own home and I have been told that families can only accommodate people once their application for international protection has been processed; offers of accommodation should be made to and are handled by the diocesan Caritas).

The other article was a frank and thought-provoking comment by the writer Mohammed Hanif that first appeared in the New York Times about the difficulties faced by so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in explaining Islam following atrocities such as the November terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris. It is a must-read.

A tragedy within the tragedy of migration to Italy

This story, if confirmed, is a tragedy within the tragedy of migration to Italy, which sees tens of thousands of migrants and refugees risk death by drowning every year during the perilous sea crossing from north Africa only to face loneliness and destitution once they have arrived.

Modou Sarr, a 37-year-old from Gambia, set fire to a car at a petrol station in San Tammaro in the southern Campania region while the driver was refuelling in order to get himself arrested, according to an Ansa news agency report.

He allegedly told police he was destitute and wanted to spend Christmas in prison where food and lodging would be guaranteed, rather than on the hostile streets of the Camorra-mafia dominated Caserta province.

Of course I know nothing about this man or his story – when and how he arrived in Italy, whether he has legal documents, what he has done and how he has been assisted up till now.

However, my guess is that he has been a victim of the unstable and exploitative labour market in the Caserta area based largely on temporary seasonal work in agriculture and tourism, which many migrants to Italy see as a stepping stone to seeking more stable employment further north.

It may be that he entered the country illegally or came in on a legal migrant quota but subsequently fell foul of Italy’s rigid immigration laws.

Or, as a Gambian national, it could be that he applied for some form of international protection and then slipped through the net.

In any event, chances are that after his scheduled fast-track trial – and maybe Christmas spent in the warm and dry of a prison cell – he will be sent back to where he came from, only to begin his odyssey all over again.


New UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi must ensure refugees do not become scapegoats after Paris attacks

On 18 November the general assembly of the United Nations endorsed the nomination of long-serving Italian diplomat Filippo Grandi as the next UN high commissioner for refugees.

He replaces former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres on 1 January.

Born in Milan in 1957, Grandi has spent most of his career in the UN, working for the UNHCR in Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Iraq among other places and leading the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) from 2010 until 2014.

His nomination not only continues the proud tradition of Italians in key international positions – Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, Mario Draghi as current president of the European Central Bank and Federica Mogherini as the European Union’s current high representative for foreign affairs – but it can also be seen as recognition of the front-line role played by Italy in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the second world war.

Last month UNHCR said it expected 1.4 million refugees to arrive in Europe in 2015 and 2016 in search of “safety and international protection” from terrorism, war and persecution in their home countries. The vast majority are Muslim.

Grandi now has the challenge of ensuring that these people are not turned into scapegoats as western countries ratchet up the ‘war on terror’ following the 13 November attacks by Islamic jihadists in Paris in which at least 129 people were killed.

The day after the tragedy Poland’s future minister for European affairs said it would be “impossible” for the new conservative government to accept previously agreed EU-mandate quotas for refugees amid subsequently confirmed reports that one of the Paris terrorists had transited through Greece in October. The others were all allegedly French or Belgian nationals.

Similar sentiments have been expressed in Italy by Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigration and anti-Europe Northern League, and he is not alone.

However, as the speaker of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and former UNHCR Italy spokesperson Laura Boldrini pointed out, refugees are often “the first victims of terror”.

“Those who want to send them back are giving Islamic State a gift by allowing it to step forward as their only protection,” she said in an interview to L’Espresso magazine published 18 November.

“Those who say all Muslims are the same make a few thousand militiamen representative of billions of people. It’s madness,” she added.