Address of the Grand Master to the diplomatic corps
The Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Fra’ Matthew Festing, received at the Magistral Villa on the Aventine the Ambassadors of the 104 countries accredited to the Order for the audience of the beginning of the new Year.
Here is the address of the Grand Master.
Mr. Doyen, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am particularly happy today to receive the members of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Sovereign Order of Malta for the traditional exchange of new year greetings. I would like to express my sincere thanks for the kind words addressed to me by the Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, the Ambassador of Honduras H.E. Valladares Lanza. A particular greeting goes to the ambassadors who are participating in this audience for the first time.
At the opening of this year, when the world is experiencing situations of particular suffering, the Order of Malta once again affirms its centuries old involvement and commitment to help those in need, according to the teachings which His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI recently expressed in his exceptional Encyclical ‘Caritas in Veritate’ in his call to men of good will to develop an integral humanism based on respect for human life, to bring aid to peoples in distress particularly to the poorest and those abandoned by society, for the practice of a charity illuminated by reason and by faith.
In 2009 an event of great importance for the Order was the nomination by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI of Archbishop Paolo Sardi, vice-chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church, as the Order’s new Pro Patron. Archbishop Sardi succeeds our beloved Cardinal Pio Laghi, whom we commemorate this afternoon on the first anniversary of his return to God.
I would like once again to express filial devotion to the Holy Father, who continues to enlighten these sorely challenged times with the strength of his words, his example and his elevated teaching.
The year 2009 has been an especially fulfilling one for humanitarian diplomacy. Together with members of the Government of the Order, I had the honour of receiving in official visits Their Excellencies the Presidents of Belarus, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and the Republic of Malta, and the Sovereign Prince of Monaco.
I was also honoured to receive the Presidents of the Canadian Senate, the Italian Senate, and the Croatian Parliament. I received, too, the Vice-President of the Hungarian Parliament, the Vice-Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovakia, as well as the Ministers of Foreign Affairs for the Republic of El Salvador, Belarus, the Czech Republic and that of Georgia.
Most recently, a delegation of the Grand Magistry of the Order was received by His Excellency the President of the Republic of Gabon.
In February, I made an official visit to Hungary, where the Hungarian First Aid Corps of the Order of Malta has 900 permanent employees and 12,000 volunteers, and has, since its creation in 1989, become the largest organisation for social assistance in the country, with six hospitals, and medico-social centres in nine villages.
I went to the European Commission in Brussels and had fruitful talks with the President of the Commission, as well as with the President of the European Parliament, the European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the Secretary General of NATO. A Cooperation Agreement was signed between the European Commission and the Sovereign Order.
I renew my congratulations to the President of the European Commission for his re-election, and extend my best wishes to the President of the Council of the European Union and the European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, who have taken up their roles.
In June, in response to the invitation of the President of Hungary, I had the honour of participating in the celebrations organised on the occasion of the Twentieth Anniversary of the Fall of the Iron Curtain in Budapest, joining the Presidents of Germany, Austria, Finland, Slovenia, Switzerland and Albania.
In October, after a visit to Germany and to the United States where I met members from our Associations there, I made an official visit to Lebanon, where the Order has had an uninterrupted presence since 1953 and currently runs twelve socio-medical centres and numerous dispensaries. A Cooperation Agreement was signed between the Lebanese Republic and the Sovereign Order. I will come back to the special significance of this visit in a moment.
I wish now to recall some of the main humanitarian interventions the Order carried out in 2009.
On the great Asiatic continent, in Indonesia, through our worldwide relief service, Malteser International, the Order of Malta was able to provide immediate assistance after the earthquake which hit the island of Sumatra last September, and after typhoons Ketsana and Parma which hit the Philippines and Vietnam at the same time. Faced with this impressive chain of natural disasters, the Order of Malta’s worldwide relief service immediately set to work to build shelters and distribute emergency rations in the outlying rural areas. Thousands of families were helped and medical assistance was assured for those who had remained trapped in the more unreachable areas. At the request of the Indonesian government, we will continue the reconstruction work for as long as possible.
The Order also provided assistance in Pakistan, where one and a half million refugees have had to leave their homes because of the conflicts between the army and the Taliban.
In northern Sri Lanka the Order has helped internal refugees who have been forced by the civil war to take shelter in ‘transit camps’. We have repeatedly appealed to the government authorities to allow our operators to enter the camps, where the refugees are denied even the most elementary forms of assistance and basic healthcare.
The Order of Malta has long understood the link between safeguarding the environment and peace in the world. Thus, in this context the health and social programmes the Order runs in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka include teaching those populations how best to maintain their supplies of water, and what the effects of climate change can have on them. Access to drinking water is one of the most important ways of preventing the spread of disease, especially in developing countries.
I would like also to mention our work in Africa. In Kenya and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I hope to go next month, the Order is supplying very important assistance in health and welfare. In eastern Congo in particular, we are continuing to treat the physical and psychological wounds the war has inflicted on over 30,000 innocent victims, mostly women and children.
We are continuing the intense vaccination campaign for infants in Sudan, where over 22,000 mothers and children have benefited from our nutritional and assistance programmes. Here too, as in another 35 African countries, the Order is cooperating for the prevention of tuberculosis, malaria and AIDs epidemics, unhappily still the main causes of death on the continent.
In conclusion, I turn to the nearest country, Italy, and I would like to stress the fact that after the devastating earthquake in Abruzzo on 6 April 2009, the Corpo Militare and the Emergency Corps of the Italian Association of the Order of Malta, went promptly into action, together with the Civil Defence Department of the Italian Government.
At L’Aquila, two tent camps were entrusted to them and over 850 of our Italian volunteers, flanked by other volunteers from our German, French and Austrian Associations, assisted over 1,000 displaced people.
I myself went to L’Aquila on several occasions between April and September, and was greatly impressed by the Italian authorities’ speedy intervention, efficiency and professionalism.
I would also like to praise the generosity, availability and efficiency demonstrated by the members of the Order’s Italian Military Corps (Auxiliary of the Italian Army) and from the Order’s Emergency Corps.
Moreover, our excellent bilateral relations with Italy were confirmed during the visit I made to the Speaker of the Senate, His Excellency Renato Schifani, at Palazzo Giustiniani, and by the numerous bilateral agreements and joint initiatives we are developing in the health and hospital management sectors through the Order’s Italian Association, and in cooperation with the Italian Department of Civil Defence and the Coastguards from the Italian Navy.
It is in a universal spirit of solidarity which is above political differences as well as in the spirit of religious dialogue that the Order of Malta continues to deploy its efforts in the Middle East, a region in which the Order’s own history is so profoundly rooted.
We have recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of our maternity hospital in Bethlehem. The Holy Family Hospital, financed by the Order’s national Associations and by special donations from the Belgian and American Governments, provides high quality support at low cost for the Palestinian mothers. But, above all, I note that the great majority of the 47,000 children born here since its opening come from Muslim families.
Now, returning to the recent visit I paid to Lebanon: I had the opportunity to have long and highly interesting discussions with the President and the highest authorities of the country, as well as with the 17 leaders of the religious communities.
I was also privileged to visit some of our health centres which, from the Bekaa valley in the north to the Israeli border in the south, assist hundreds of thousands of people every year. The image I carry with me is of the many Muslim doctors and nurses working in our centres, dressed according to Islamic tradition, and proudly bearing on their breasts the Order of Malta’s eight pointed cross.
Even more noticeable is the first aid and social assistance the Order carries out with a Shiite humanitarian foundation, and with which we have been serving those in need for many years. We consider this the most tangible sign that civil cohabitation and solidarity among the various components of a country is possible.
It is with this spirit that we will follow with great interest the work of the Special Assembly of the Synod for the Middle East that the Pope has convened for next October to discuss the future activities of the Catholic Church in the region and the ‘communion and testimony’ mission of Eastern Christians.
The cooperation among the different countries and civilizations of the Mediterranean will also act as a backdrop to the journey that the Holy Father plans to make to the Republic of Malta next April, tracing the steps of St. Paul, and also, in great part, the history of the Order.
In concluding this brief review, I would like to mention that the Order of Malta was recently given the opportunity to launch a strong appeal to the international community, by being offered to take the floor before the United Nations Security Council.
The Grand Hospitaller of the Order, our Minister in charge of health and international cooperation, gave the view of the Order on the vital current issue of ‘Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’. Obviously, our views and recommendations come from the experience gained by our members and humanitarian personnel, especially in Africa and Asia.
It was an exceptional occasion which called to the attention of the Security Council the atrocities committed against civilians during conflicts. Civilians have often been used as human shields in unequal struggles in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the Gaza Strip; or, as in East Congo, they become victims of ‘systematic use of rape and mutilation’ as a ‘tactic of choice of militia groups’; in the Middle East, they have been victims of indiscriminate bombing, anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs.
We warned that refugee camps have also been the targets of military raids and that humanitarian aid workers ‘have become the deliberate targets or incidental victims of these attacks’. This happened in Darfur and in Afghanistan, where three of our aid workers were killed, whilst others were prevented from entering the camps in Sri Lanka. We stressed that these actions violate the basic principles of international humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, – stated principles which should be universally binding. This is why the Order is asking that those who violate these norms, both executors and instigators, be prosecuted, and that any gross violations that Member States are unable to pursue through the ordinary course of their domestic law and procedure be referred to the International Criminal Court.
It is hoped that this appeal will not fall on deaf ears but can find concrete application. The Order, for its part, will continue to offer its support to the campaign for disarmament, for nuclear non-proliferation and, when governments request it, mediation and negotiation in conflicts.
Mr. Doyen, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to extend to the Heads of State, the Governments and the Peoples you represent, my good wishes for peace and serenity in 2010, and to wish you and your dear families a very happy New Year.