Illustrious Rector, Eminences, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here with you at the beginning of this two-day conference held in Rome and in Assisi, celebrating the eight hundredth anniversary of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. In particular, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the organization of this celebration, namely the Custos, Father Francesco Patton, and Prof. Salvatore Martinez, President of the Observatory on Religious Minorities and Respect for Religious Freedom in the World that I established here at the Farnesina this year. I wish to express my special thanks also to Sister Mary Melone, who is hosting us on the prestigious premises of the Antonianum Pontifical University, and to a host of other organizations of the Holy See that have partnered with us in this initiative.
Today we are here not only to commemorate the eight hundredth anniversary of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, but also and above all to recall the ideal of freedom and the impact of its diplomatic action for dialogue in one of the traditionally most delicate and most complex places in the world. For this reason, in order to identify and rediscover the essence of almost a thousand years of activity of the Custody, it is worth recalling how it was founded.
Eight hundred years ago, while the bloody and unjustified 5th Crusade was being fought, Francis ventured across the battle ground to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt and nephew of the Saladin. With the calling of a saint, at the cost of risking his life, Francis showed that dialogue is always possible. The Sultan was impressed by Francis’ gesture and in return treated him with great respect and high esteem. The two talked not for a few hours but for several days.
The memory of that heroic mission eight hundred years ago supports us in our current action. In a region where, after centuries, sectarian hatred is unfortunately still widespread, where Daesh’s terrorists have massacred men and women considered to be infidels, where the Christians have had to flee en masse from Iraq and from the region that was once the cradle of Christianity, this commemoration of the Custody takes on the additional profound meaning of being an act of foreign policy. For eight hundred years the Custody has played a fundamental role in the protection of the Holy Places and in the promotion of tolerance and dialogue between religions. Today, therefore, we are not only celebrating the anniversary of an important event of the past, but we are here to indicate the way to overcome violent persecutions and unreasonable sectarian oppositions in the name of shared values.
I therefore wish to thank the Custos, Father Francesco Patton, an Italian who honours Italy in the Middle East and who relentlessly pursues his mission by keeping the door of dialogue wide open. And with him there are many other Franciscans who are very active in educating young people, involving Christian, Jewish and Muslim teachers. They are the “good teachers” of coexistence, versus the “bad teachers” who teach hate, intolerance and anti-Semitism.
Today’s conference offers the opportunity to reflect on the strong thread of continuity from St. Francis to Pope Francis. I certainly am not a theologian, but I confess that I was deeply impressed by a message by Pope Francis who said that we need not go too far – we need not go to the Holy Land – to put into practice the lesson learnt from St. Francis. I am referring to his encouragement to welcome and provide assistance to refugees and migrants who flee from war, violence, persecutions, poverty and hunger.
Italy has never shunned this type of challenge, as it has always lived by the principles of solidarity and security. In recent years we have saved 600,000 people and kept the Country safe. We have proven wrong the axiom according to which politicians, once they exercise power, end up being cynical and forgetful of their ideals. We have attached priority to the reasons of the individual over the results of the surveys, the centrality of the human individual versus the devastation of tragedies or, even worse, versus indifference.
And today, through diplomacy and cooperation, we are working to make sure that the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees be put on the international agenda. We are the first to be horrified by the conditions of the Libyan centres, and we are the ones to have taken action by providing cooperation aid and by signing memorandums with the UNHCR and the OIM, unlike many others who are only good at lecturing and at pontificating.
There is a second concept of Pope Francis that I am pleased to mention today as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Indeed, the Holy Father has said that “we must not be afraid of diversity”, because diversity “helps us, challenges us and enriches us”. These words, more than any other, are important in my opinion because they emphasize the great value of the action of the Custody, that is fearless when confronted with the religious diversity of the Middle East, and also because they reflect the core of Italy’s foreign policy, traditionally aimed at promoting pluralism and at rejecting oppressive views that are fuelled by the fear of anyone who is different and that tend to impose uniform thinking.
It is worth noting that religious freedom is violated, minorities are discriminated, vulnerable groups are persecuted especially in those areas of the world where people are afraid of differences and where people hate other religions, where the individual doctrine of established power cannot be questioned. Where pluralism is prohibited, there can be no form of dialogue and what prevails is oppression and repression.
As you all know I am from Sicily. An Island that over the centuries flourished thanks to superfetation and cross-fertilization of cultures, faiths and different languages. Palermo is a perfect example of this. Its crest is the Four-language Stone. A stele dating back to 1149 that is on display in the Zisa Palace and that describes the world’s dating systems in Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic. It is a tangible symbol of tolerance and coexistence of well-defined and deeply rooted peoples and religions that were able to talk to each other in Palermo. And it is no coincidence that it was precisely that Medieval Palermo that was the place where a far-sighted Emperor grew up and was educated and whose story is intertwined with the Holy Land. I am referring to Frederick II. He lived at the same time as St. Francis and for years he managed to ignore the requests by Pope Honorius III to start a Crusade.
In order to “conquer” Jerusalem, Frederick at first tried to use the peaceful instrument of the diplomacy of marriage. When his wife died, he met the Pope and committed to marrying the daughter of the King of Jerusalem. And then, when he was pressured into starting the Crusade, instead of fighting he negotiated with the Sultan and succeeded in obtaining the surrender of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and guarantees for the free movement of pilgrims. We are told that during the negotiations he engaged in philosophical and scientific debates with learned Muslims and this earned him the accusation of being an unbeliever.
His inclination for dialogue, his respect for others, his acknowledgement of different religious and cultural identities, his acceptance of pluralism are also the strengths of the Custody. I do not think I am exaggerating if I say that these are also the distinctive features of modern-day Italy and of the Italian mentality, that have always found expression in solidarity and in promoting the common good.
If we think about our identity, I think we can say that the most common element that we share is pluralism, intended as multiplicity of landscapes, traditions, architectures, municipalities, but also ideas, thoughts, art and literature. This pluralism may very well have been fostered by the absence of raw materials in our Country, which induced us to promote trade, be creative and inventive and which led the best Italian minds to interact with the representatives of different cultures and religions. It is a fact that when we Italians complied with this pluralistic nature, Italy made progress and was held in high esteem in the world. Instead, the darkest moments of our history are associated with the attempts to coerce and repress this vocation. Inevitably, this respect for different cultures is the lifeblood of our foreign policy and diplomacy and a constant source of inspiration for it.
With this spirit, this year, Italy promoted Resolution 2347, the first Resolution of the Security Council on the protection of cultural heritage in areas of conflict where we inertly witnessed the destruction of many items and monuments, especially in the Middle East. The destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime, it is a crime against mankind and it is a serious obstacle to peace since it rouses hatred between communities and between generations. From this standpoint, the secular protection of the Sacred Places by the Custody takes on a highly political value.
And it is with this spirit that Italy has promoted and defended the environment by submitting its National Strategy for Sustainable Development to the UN, to implement the 2030 Agenda in Italy and abroad. The protection of the environment is another challenge that constitutes a deep link between St. Francis and Pope Francis. Indeed the Holy Father has been quite efficient in relaunching the “environmental” message of St. Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Sii.
But let us not be deceived. When challenges and crises are complex and deep – from climate change to the Israeli-Palestinian issue – solutions are never easy. Dialogue is never a given nor is it always easy. But it is the only possible solution. And even when it is protracted and drawn out, it nevertheless remains a fundamental value. And as St. Francis taught us and as Pope Francis reminds us, there are always opportunities for dialogue. All we need to do is seize them.