Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

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Speech of H.M.E.H. the Prince and Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Sovereign Order of Malta

Rome, 10/01/2017 


The Grand Master Fra’ Matthew Festing received today the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Sovereign Order of Malta for the traditional audience of the beginning of the new year.The audience took place at the Magistral Villa in Rome.

Here is the address of the Grand Master

Mr Doyen, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The welcoming words with which I address you today are much more than a simple formality. The tradition of exchanging greetings at the start of a new year of working together is the demonstration of the credit and value attributed to each of you, as experts in international relations. Diplomacy is a vital dimension of the Sovereign Order of Malta.

I wish to thank the Ambassador of the Czech Republic, Pavel Vosalik, for his kind words, and I greet you all very warmly, particularly the ambassadors who are attending this Audience for the first time. This meeting offers me the opportunity to review with you the humanitarian challenges of this past year – challenges that the world, and our Order, have faced in so many parts of the globe.

Guided by faith in Christ along the difficult paths of human history, the Order has never experienced a time when its humanitarian work was so demanding and challenging.

The world is facing an ever-increasing disregard of international human rights. In war zones, indiscriminate bombing targeting schools and hospitals is forcing millions of people to abandon their homeland. Figures change by the hour in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, devastated by five years of relentless war. Those who have remained in the city have very little means for survival left. The atrocities of the war have led to comparisons with some of the darkest moments in recent history: Srebrenica, Grozny, Guernica.

The rules of war – encoded in the Geneva Conventions – have been systematically disregarded in Syria and elsewhere. Far from the television crews, fighting continues unabated in Yemen and South Sudan, and humanitarian principles are jettisoned. The majority of migrants held in Libyan detention centres, many of them women, have been tortured and subjected to all forms of violation and deprivation.

A vigorous and radical reaffirmation of international humanitarian law and the promotion of human rights are the keys to stopping these atrocities. Faith-based institutions and organisations can play an important role in this respect. Religions often share common values and principles which are embedded in their founding doctrines and teachings.

2016 was marked by geo-political crises and emergencies, but also crossed by a long thread of calamities, wars and terrorist acts, and natural disasters. In this last, I am referring particularly to the violent earthquakes that have shaken Italy this past year. Reacting in just hours after the 24 August and 30 October devastations which attacked the central part of the peninsula, our Italian Relief Corps volunteers, and the Order’s Military Corps, were on the move. In Amatrice, Norcia, Macerata and the other towns and villages affected by the earthquake, rescuers, psychologists and health workers gave assistance, offered psychological support and distributed basic necessities to the bewildered and displaced.

But Italy is also in the midst of another emergency – that of the migration flows which have been crossing Europe for some years now. Led on by unscrupulous traffickers, desperate masses risk their lives in the Mediterranean, where little is needed to transform a crossing, full of uncertainties, into a journey which has no guaranteed arrival. This is why – and where – the Order of Malta’s Italian Relief Corps has been working: from the island of Lampedusa, since 2008. Our doctors and nurses are specialised in aiding migrants at sea, guaranteeing a highly qualified service day and night. In 2016, over 31,000 people crossing the Mediterranean were assisted by our Italian volunteers. During my visit to the Quirinal Palace in October, the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella, on learning of these significant results, asked me to pass on his praise and recognition to our volunteers.

The Italian front is only one of many where we are tackling the refugee emergency. This global problem has become one of the most complex and dramatic issues of our times. Over 65 million people have been forced to leave their homes: through conflict, famine, dictatorships or religious fundamentalisms, and to undertake dangerous ‘journeys of hope’ in search of a better life. In this alarming scenario, the Order of Malta is active with its network of Associations, Embassies, relief corps and volunteers, offering first aid and emergency aid, and providing long-term development projects in the countries of origin, transit and/or arrival. Many of these interventions are concentrated in the Middle East. In particular, we are providing aid in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, in field hospitals, medical centres and mobile clinics, assisting 170,000 wounded and sick. On the continent of Africa, we run hygiene and sanitation projects for 21,000 refugees and disadvantaged in the Democratic Republic of Congo; we distribute food to internally displaced persons in South Sudan and to those in the refugee camps in Uganda. In Asia we run healthcare projects for refugees in Myanmar and Thailand, and give psychosocial support to refugees. In Europe we are supporting victims of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Whilst it is too complex for me to describe all our interventions here, I observe that they touch many other significant countries and regions in this boundless ‘geography of need’. In these areas, we are involved in a wide range of initiatives, such as medical and social assistance, the distribution of medicines, food, assessing basic needs, schools for children and services for disabled migrants. Continuous work goes on behind emergency front lines. An example is the extensive network of 140 facilities with which the Order in Germany, together with the federal and municipal institutions, carries on a 25-year-old practice of assistance and integration for migrants and refugees.

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Migration is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. A real demographic revolution is going on in the world today. In the wake of a steady population growth in Africa, we are witnessing an ever-decreasing demographic trend in Europe. What are the implications and what is the scale of the challenge? Finding shared strategies to address both the challenges and the opportunities is an imperative for the international community.

As stated recently in a seminar organised by our Embassy to the Holy See, in most cases it is the women who suffer most in the context of migration. They are often forced into slavery or prostitution, and subjected to physical and psychological violence along the treacherous journey to another country.

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The efforts involved in the exceptional nature of the migration phenomenon should not let us forget the poverty that exists beside us every day. During the Holy Year of Mercy, our Order, through the Grand Priory of Rome, stepped up its assistance and solidarity efforts in the streets, in food banks and in social centres, as well as in the established soup kitchens for the poor. Latest annual figures: 210,000 hot meals offered, over 11,000 people assisted and almost 3000 tons of food distributed, plus activities such as medical assistance and contributions to families in difficulty.

As you know, any review of the Order’s humanitarian activities in 120 countries covers extremely different contexts, ranging from medical programmes to water supply projects, from assistance to the disabled to hospital work. The Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, in the heart of a conflict-torn land, continues to be a beacon of hope for thousands of expectant mothers and infants of different races and religions. Now, thanks to the management of Ordre de Malte France, and the support of several government and aid agencies, the hospital also has specific programmes to protect mothers from one of the major diseases of the century – diabetes, a silent killer, especially in low-income countries where diagnosis and treatment is lacking. I also wish to mention the awareness campaign Malteser International, our international relief agency, has launched in Colombia for containing the Zika virus; and the work undertaken at the Saint Jean de Malte Hospital in Njombé, Cameroon, where the Order is running a programme treating Malaria and AIDs patients. I will be visiting Cameroon at the end of January in an official visit and I look forward to seeing at firsthand our work in that country.

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The year just ended has also been significant for the diplomatic activity of our Order. With our participation in the World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul on the initiative of the United Nations Secretary General, the Order’s intervention emphasised the value of the contribution of faith-based institutions and organisations in humanitarian action. We stressed that, in crisis situations, the most reliable first responders for local communities are very often the faith-based organisations. For this reason we called for a closer inter-religious dialogue as fundamental in helping the victims in these situations. To code a new ‘grammar’ of coexistence and altruism for our times, so scarred by terrorism and conflicts, is not only a hope, but a real possibility. We are attentive interlocutors for those who share this conviction. We demonstrated this in February with a series of meetings in Brussels with European Union institutional leaders, which focussed on the refugee crisis. Then, in September, the Order of Malta participated in the 71st United Nations General Assembly High Level meeting on Migration.

Earlier in the year, a strategy meeting was held here at the Magistral Villa, between the Order’s high officers and representatives of the Libyan government and Parliament. The great unknowns – the refugee crisis, human trafficking, infiltration of extremist militias linked with Daesh – were debated with United Nations and European Union delegates. The future of Libya, strategic crossroad of the migrant routes, and the stability of the political normalisation process – launched with the installation of Premier Al Sarraj – is linked to the resolution of these uncertainties. A testimony to the importance of a joint approach of states and institutions to tackling major emergencies, is operation Sophia, which is the European mission launched in the Mediterranean in 2015 to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking along the migration route, starting from Libya. An Order delegation visited the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, flagship of operation Sophia.

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At the institutional level, our agenda over the past year has also included excellent opportunities for dialogue, both inside and outside the Order of Malta, starting with the regional meetings held throughout 2016: the Meso-American Conference in Panama in February, the international Hospitallers Conference in Malta in March, and two autumn conferences: in Vilnius with the Order’s organisations and embassies in central and eastern Europe, and the Asia-Pacific Conference held in Seoul.

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The Order’s international relations included the signing of a number of significant cooperation agreements: with the Republic of Albania on shared projects in the hospital, education and civil defence fields; an accord on medical training and vocational support between the ‘Bambino Gesù’ Children’s Hospital in Rome, which belongs to the Holy See, and our Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem. Two other significant cooperation agreements were signed with Gabon and Belarus.

In terms of bilateral relations, I had a number of official meetings with heads of states and governments which have, thanks to the fruitful collaboration with you, enabled me to reinforce bonds and cooperation with various countries, to provide medical and humanitarian assistance. As well as my visit to the Italian head of state, which provided an opportunity for a mutual in-depth analysis of the international crisis hotspots, I had an intense schedule of state visits to Central America in February, travelling to El Salvador, Honduras and Panama. In discussions with their institutional authorities, I was pleased to reassert the importance of further synergies for healthcare, social services, and the prevention of natural disasters linked to climate change. Also during the year, I had constructive meetings in the Magistral Palace, with the President of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solís, with the Slovenian President, Borut Pahor, and with the President of Albania, Bujar Nishani on his State Visit. In October, my state visit to Armenia included talks with President Serzh Sargsyan and a cordial meeting with Patriarch Karekin II.

The Order helped to organise in the Vatican an international convention on treating people affected by Hansen’s disease (leprosy), a traditional healthcare concern of the Order. We also hosted a meeting with the delegates of the Transatlantic Policy Network on Religion and Diplomacy – a committee of high representatives of European, American and Canadian governments – to analyse the increasingly close links between religion and international relations.

I cannot conclude without mentioning the Jubilee of Mercy, which has been a unique opportunity for spiritual development, for the whole Catholic world. As Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Lumen Fidei, “Suffering reminds us that faith’s service to the common good is always one of hope.” It is precisely to fulfil this hope that so many of us were asked to make an exceptional effort to aid the pilgrims coming from all over the world to Rome during this Extraordinary Holy Year. 1,800 Order volunteers alternated daily in the first-aid posts set up in the four major basilicas. Faith and devotion were also much in evidence in September when 120,000 packed into St. Peter’s Square for the canonisation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta: her example of untiring service to those in need is an inspiration for the entire voluntary service. In the words of this great interpreter of Christian charity: “It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving.”

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Dear Ambassadors,

At the start of this new year, in our shared pledge, may I once again thank you for helping to promote the Sovereign Order of Malta’s humanitarian commitment. One of my illustrious countrymen, Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, thus describes this ancient institution: “God has created me to do Him some definite service…. I have my mission….. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons…. I shall do good; I shall do His work”.

As long as pain and hardship exist on humanity’s path, we shall maintain our efforts to combat them.

To all of you, to your families and to the nations you represent my very best wishes for 2017. May it be rich in spiritual grace, in which peace and mercy can grow, as a sign of hope for those near and far whom you represent here today.

Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta

Magistral Palace, Via Condotti, 68 Rome - Italy

Tel. +39.06.67581.1 | [email protected]