“Italy is committed in Europe to keeping the attention on the persecution of Christians and offering solidarity through specific projects. Otherwise we would be the passive accomplices of that silence denounced by Pope Frances”.
Minister Paolo Gentiloni speaks upon his return from a visit to Kenya after the tragic events at the University of Garissa. “What is needed against Daesh [Arabic acronym for Islamic State, editor’s note] is a multi-level strategy. The military option is on the table, obviously limited and proportionate, and that in no way contemplates the exportation by force of political models. What’s more, we are already in the forefront at military level, from Libya to Somalia and from Iraq to Syria. The true political challenge is for the Islamic world to get the better of the forces of fundamentalism. As King Abdullah II of Jordan told me, “it is above all up to us to defeat these traitors”.
But there doesn’t seem to be sufficient awareness in the EU.
We have to raise that awareness. We cannot close ourselves off egotistically, fool ourselves into thinking that we can put up walls, or worse, foment hate campaigns as a certain right wing in Europe are doing. That is a mistake. It may grab a few headlines but does nothing to protect from the threat. Immigration from Africa is a theme that is going to prominent for the next 20 years, possibly the next 40 given the multitude of demographic and prosperity levels. It is therefore something to be regulated, not combatted. A regulated immigration need not be a threat, but rather an opportunity.
We have seen so many boatload arrivals and, unfortunately, no small number of tragedies. Is the situation going to deteriorate further with the onset of summer?
We cannot ruled that out, but neither can we confirm the wild estimated being rumoured. We are intervening both in countries of transit to combat the traffickers, as well as in countries of origin, promoting cooperation with the Horn of Africa, central Africa and regarding the dramatic situation created by the war in Syria. The problem in Libya is its lack of a government.
How did you find the situation in Kenya?
I found a country in shock, even though, unfortunately, Kenya is no stranger to terrorism. Apart from the dimension of the massacre at Garissa, what is appalling is the killers’ having brutally singled out Christian students. The location they chose is confirmation that Islamic terrorism often targets students. Culture and education are its enemy, from the Taleban to Boko Haram, the latter of which translates as “Western education is a sin”.
What concerns did you encounter in your meeting with the government and with Cardinal Njui in Nairobi, and what form of aid were we able to offer?
We made a pledge to the government to collaborate on countering terrorism, and in a special way with the university, by offering the students who survived Garissa study bursaries and facilitated visas for Italy. A group of 9 Italian universities have offered their availability, which the government very much appreciates and will ask other European countries to follow suit. Cardinal Njue described the situation of the Christian community to me. The impact has been especially dramatic in the regions to the north bordering on Somalia but, fortunately, less in the capital, where Holy Week celebrations were not curtailed by fear. We discussed the possibility of common Italian Cooperation and Red Cross projects.
The Pope has denounced a complicit silence.
Unfortunately, today’s Europe tends to turn away at certain moments. The events at Srebrenica 20 years ago come to mind. That is why the Holy Father’s call goes out to everyone. Denouncing the persecution of Christians is the duty of every citizen, regardless of religious conviction. This persecution threatens the very survival of Christians in the places that were the cradle of the faith, as Frances reminded in his December letter to the Christians of the East. I was in Erbil, and I remember the enormous impression that letter made in the refugee camp run by the Chaldean Church I was visiting.
Going back to the terrorist threat, do you see a single bond between al-Shabab in Kenya and IS?
There are roots in Yemen and Somalia that go back to before al-Qaeda, the attacks on the American embassy took place well before the Twin Towers. Al-Shabab comes out of that and is a phenomenon distinct from Daesh. But in Kenya I had confirmation that there too the call of the so-called black caliphate is getting stronger, at least on the level of propaganda.
Is IS merely a flag in Libya, or is it a concrete threat?
There have been some very serious episodes there too, such as the 21 Egyptian Copts murdered, and there are autonomous local groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia, that tend to use the Daesh insignia. These are concentrated in areas such as Benghazi, Derna and Sirte, and are being fought by the government of Tobruk and the militias of Misrata, but if the attempts at conciliation by UN envoy Bernardino Leon are not successful, the risk that these isolated groups will expand is great. As in Somalia has proved, isolated terrorist bands can flourish in the context of a failed State, the difference being that failure in the case of Libya threatens to happen a few hundred kilometres from our coastline.
The Mediterranean is a threat then.
We are at the centre of the Mediterranean, crossroads of crises but also of great opportunities. Up until 20 years ago, we considered Africa a lost continent; today it is certainly threatened by terrorism and various local crises, but has renewed hopes of reducing poverty and disease, and in growth and educational development. We must invest in those hopes through the wealth of relations we enjoy with the countries of Mediterranean Africa and of the Middle East, not least in order to regulate the problem of immigration, as has been possible over the past 10 years with Morocco and Tunisia.
Is there a real risk of terrorism in Italy?
Our intelligence services have not signalled any particular risk of attack, but our security forces must remain on high alert.
The war and the advance of terrorism have triggered a full-blown humanitarian crisis, especially regarding the children of Syria.
The situation in Yarmouk is alarming. Italy is in the forefront with a contribution of 1.5 million euro in emergency aid to UNICEF and UNRWA (the UN organisation for Palestinian refugees). Humanitarian corridors need to be opened without delay, but the Syrian humanitarian emergency does not lie solely at the gates of Damascus, other countries are dramatically affected as well. Two weeks ago the Italian Cooperation earmarked another 20 million dollars. We are working chiefly in Lebanon and Jordan where ten days ago I saw an Italian-built hospital operating in a camp housing 20,000 Syrian refugees.
Tunisia has been a symbol of hope. Is that no longer true after the attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis?
As tragic as that massacre was, not least in light of the 4 Italian lives lost, we cannot change our judgement of that country. The reaction to the attack was strong and positive, mobilising secular and Islamic parties alike. The Tunisian Spring has stood its most difficult test. Now, concrete claims of solidarity need to be backed up with concrete aid. Italy has cancelled a portion of debt and is engaged in various cooperation projects. My French
colleague Fabius and I are proposing a European Union intervention to promote investments and twinnings between the regions of our continent and those less affluent of Tunisia, a land of hope that we shall not forget.