Excellencies, distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I wish to welcome you all to the Farnesina on the occasion of these special celebrations of the eight hundredth anniversary of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. In particular I wish to thank our foreign guests and all those who have contributed to organizing this two-day event dedicated to the Custody and in particular Prof. Salvatore Martinez, President of the Observatory on Religious Minorities in the World and Respect for Religious Freedom, and the Custos, Father Francesco Patton whom we are honoured to have in our midst here today. I further extend my heartfelt thanks to the speakers who will enrich the discussion with their presentations and who include the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco, the Ambassador of Israel and the Mayor of Bethlehem.
This morning we started the discussion on this issue at the Antonianum Pontifical University. Tomorrow the discussion will continue in Assisi, the home town of Saint Francis. This afternoon, here at the Farnesina, the discussion is more of a political-diplomatic nature.
Indeed, the premise is that the protection of religious freedom is a core task of foreign policy. It means protecting the essence of this right, founded on the freedoms that ensure peace, security and prosperity. Religious freedom is an essential principle in human coexistence and in the relationships between States. Denying it endangers the basic rights of every human individual. Moreover, if the attack is perpetrated against an entire community, it triggers a vicious cycle that jeopardizes security and peace among peoples.
This is why, this year, I promoted the establishment of the Observatory on Religious Minorities in the World and Respect for Religious Freedom based at the Farnesina under the leadership of Prof. Martinez. And this international conference is to showcase the work done by the Observatory during these months. I would like to take this opportunity to recall that respect for the freedom of religion and the protection of minorities are the strong points of our candidacy for a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council.
And I would even add that we are convinced that religious freedom is a natural right that even precedes the political dimension. The relationship between man and his own God is more ancient than the relationship between man and his form of Government. The freedom to pray lies at the heart of the law and of democracy. Consequently, it is a freedom that is to be “recognized” and not “conceded” by the State to the people.
It is also for this reason that we reject the opinion of those who are in favour of the freedom of creed provided that “it is not seen” or provided that it is “practiced within the walls of one’s home”. This is tantamount to denying democratic and liberal principles. Every person must have the right to freely express his or her creed not only through worship but also by taking part in the life of the community and by having access to their holy places.
The Custody of the Holy Places is therefore a political and diplomatic activity. On the one hand there is the historic role as “guarantor” also played by our Consulate General in Jerusalem in close association with the Custody, and on the other, being a custodian is much more than being a mere guardian, especially in a place that is rich in memories and meaning, but very fragile and unstable like the Holy Land. And as the Holy Father said: taking care of the fragility of the people and of peoples means caringly keeping alive memory and hope. The Custody has preserved not only the architecture but also the spirituality, the memory and hope of the Holy Places to enable different peoples to meet, pray and grow together.
Another fundamental point is that the Custody has not restricted itself only to the protective care of the Sacred Places, but it has also invested in “social work”, in particular education, a great asset for mankind. Education in the Holy Land is one of the historic missions of the Custody. Over the years the Franciscan Fathers have accomplished an extraordinary educational task in which they have involved Christian, Jewish and Muslim teachers and students. You have been the “good teachers” of dialogue and knowledge, opening up the school rooms and universities to students of all religions and from all ethnic groups, versus the “bad teachers” who preach hate and intolerance. And let me recall that in the 1950s the Franciscans introduced the study of the Koran in their schools.
Culture, education and dialogue are the values that we cherish and that we promote through our foreign policy. Where these values fail, violence and extremism prevail. It is worth noting that terrorists often target the representatives of culture and the advocates of dialogue. For instance, I would like to recall another custodian who had lay functions – Khaled al-Asaad – the “archaeologist custodian” who was barbarically killed by Daesh for wanting to protect the Palmira excavations in Syria - memory and hope of mankind.
I am deeply moved by the thought of Syria and Iraq where Daesh’s fury decimated the Christian population. In Iraq, in the Nineveh Plain, before 2003, the Christians were the majority, while today they are less than 20% of the total population. Now, finally, Daesh has been defeated in those lands, but the dividends of peace and reconciliation will not be distributed until a dialogue is reinstated among Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmens and Kurds.
Our Cooperation activity is engaged in enabling the minorities persecuted by Daesh to return to their lands, and to the Nineveh Plain. And our diplomacy is active in Iraq to promote reconciliation among the various components of the complex Iraqi reality. Inclusive dialogue and not revenge is the means for avoiding new outbreaks of terrorism in the future.
It is precisely the type of dialogue that the Custody has fostered among the various religious components, especially in Jerusalem, a town that is a symbol for its spiritual, historic and cultural dimension. Jerusalem is much more than a town: it is “a common mission” for Jews, Muslims and Christians who are the heirs of the message of God to Abraham. Just as the “status quo” of the Holy Places is a “mission” which is rooted in the minds of the people who inhabit and govern Jerusalem, and this is how it is to remain also in the future, whatever the political status of the town.
As to the status of Jerusalem, Italy is convinced that a decision can be reached only through negotiations between the parties and not through violence. As I stated a few days ago in Parliament: the status of Jerusalem is to be defined by the Israelis and Palestinians within the framework of a peace process based on the two-State solution.
I would like it to be clear that the bonds of fraternal alliance with the United States are not at all called into question, just as there are no doubts about the deep ties of friendship with the Jewish State – and indeed, we are actively engaged in ensuring its security. For this reason, for instance, we have firmly condemned the despicable attacks against Israel, in particular the launching of missiles from Gaza, because the issue of the status of Jerusalem will never justify any act of violence against the territory of Israel, nor the incitement to hatred, nor any show of anti-Semitism.
It is also as a result of these ties that the focus of the Italian presidency of the OSCE in 2018 will be on anti-Semitism. At the end of January, we will be holding an international conference on this very issue here at the Farnesina. This initiative is in line with my strong commitment to criminalize denialism and anti-Semitism, an endeavour I actively engaged in as Minister of Justice and Minister of the Interior. I remember signing hundreds of decrees for the expulsion of extremists who were sowing the seeds of this horrible intolerance in our society.
Israel is an example of democracy and of a pluralism that is to be protected and promoted also across the Middle East. Similarly, also Italy’s support for the strengthening of the institutional capacities of Palestine and its democratic, economic and social development remains unvaried, as I personally told Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs when I met them here in Rome.
In conclusion, as this conference is dedicated to authentic dialogue and pluralism, I have personally invited many young diplomats. During the last few days, Pope Francis has said that “fake news” and misinformation are “sins”. Here as well the century-old history of the Custody of Jerusalem can be of help because with their respectful spirit, understanding and engagement in seeking other people’s points of view, the Custodians of Jerusalem have always been above the sectarian propaganda that fosters the spreading of hate and of lies, especially among young people. No institution can survive 800 years unless it is upheld by great serenity and by a strength that derives from the transparency and sincerity with which it fosters memory and open dialogue.
I truly hope that the spirit of dialogue between the communities of different religions and different cultures, respect for memory and mutual understanding, may continue to inspire and shape foreign policy. It is true that – in our digital world where communication is instantaneous - dialogue is not always easy. But it is also true that dialogue is the only possible way: the way that has been pursued for 800 years with excellent results by the Custody of the Holy Land.