The Grand Master, Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto, 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.
After the speech of the Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps, the ambassador of Cameroon Antoine Zanga, the Grand Master gave the following address
Mr. Doyen, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I extend a warm welcome to you all. We are gathered here at the start of a new year for the traditional exchange of greetings in the hope that 2020 will be full of new, encouraging prospects for peace and dialogue worldwide. I extend a special greeting to the ambassadors who are participating for the first time in this audience with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Sovereign Order of Malta.
I sincerely thank the Ambassador of Cameroon, His Excellency Antoine Zanga – from this year Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps – for his much-appreciated speech.
I would like here to express my great concern for the recent growing tensions in Iraq, Iran and Libya. The Sovereign Order of Malta espouses the appeal for peace and reconciliation that His Holiness Pope Francis made during the 53rd World Day of Peace on 1st January.
In recent years, the number of people suffering from hunger has diminished, as has the infant mortality rate, two important indicators of human progress. Nonetheless, this trend is expected to reverse solely because of human actions and not for natural causes or underdevelopment. The real reasons are to be found in wars and civil unrest. This is a scandal and I am asking you as ambassadors to constantly remind governments of this intolerable danger. My hope is that humanitarian diplomacy will progressively become an indispensable instrument for promoting dialogue and peace and for resolving decades of conflict shedding blood on so many parts of the world.
We are leaving a difficult year behind us. The humanitarian crises in Syria, as well as those in Yemen and Venezuela, the drama of the Rohingya in Myanmar, are producing an ever greater number of displaced persons and refugees seeking shelter in neighbouring countries, by now on the verge of collapse. Besides the sadly well-known major crises, there are the more silent ones absent from newspaper pages and away from the spotlight. I’m thinking of the frozen conflicts and crises in the Western Balkans and in south Caucasus, including Georgia. In Africa, of the tensions in Eritrea, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. And yet again of the emergencies in the Northern Triangle of Central America, in Haiti and in the Mindanao region in the Philippines. There is currently a dramatic negative record of over 130 million persons in some 42 countries forced to seek humanitarian protection.
According to the United Nations’ latest reports, one child out of four lives in a country affected by violence or acts of terrorism. A figure that saddens us, just after the International Day of the Rights of the Child which had its 30th anniversary in November 2019. Children are the most vulnerable subjects when a conflict or a natural disaster causes essential services to collapse. Our thought goes to all those communities stricken by ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises which further worsen their living conditions.
This year has opened with the dramatic images from Australia, for months enduring devastating fires that have killed dozens of people and destroyed millions of acres of land, endangering the survival of many species of indigenous animals. The climate and environmental emergency, for years neglected if not actually denied, is continuing to demonstrate its violent effects by causing flooding, typhoons and drought worldwide. The intensification of extreme weather events is one of the factors prompting the migration phenomenon.
As the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres said in a recent climate summit in Madrid: “The choice is between hope for a better world or surrender.”
The role of humanitarian agencies who work to alleviate suffering and for the common good of humanity is increasingly essential in a historic moment in which the principles and values – values such as solidarity, equality, respect of human and civil rights – on which democracy is based are being challenged.
I ask myself what we have learnt from the painful teachings of the “short century”? The European Union, born from the ruins of the two world wars, is in trouble; the movements flaunting sentiments of closure and incomprehension, advocating the raising of walls and barriers, are growing just as we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of that Wall, symbol of ideological confrontation, of denial of liberty and of conflict between opposing blocs.
We cannot help but look at these phenomena with concern and not recognise that the Order of Malta’s mission is an antidote to the disdain for those who are “different”, to the indifference to the pain of others, to the affirmation of individualism. Our 80 thousand volunteers in 120 countries, our diplomatic network that embraces 109 states and the major international bodies, our 13,500 members and 42,000 medical and healthcare professionals are at work every day to give hope and relief to those who suffer from old age, from a disability, from sickness or from poverty.
The moment of the year in which this myriad of activities becomes more evident is the World Day of the Poor established by Pope Francis and at its third edition last November. There are a great many initiatives set up all over the world that testify to the everyday presence of the Order beside those who suffer. Last year, over 1000 day- care centres the Order of Malta runs worldwide offered healthcare, psychological support, basic necessities and hot meals as well as the possibility to use showers and laundry facilities for the homeless or those living in poverty. In Italy alone, 470,000 meals and 85,000 clothing items were distributed in 2018.
We have espoused the Holy Father’s heartfelt appeal to strengthen the network of support for “families forced to leave their homeland to seek a living elsewhere; orphans who have lost their parents or were violently torn from them by brutal means of exploitation; young people seeking professional fulfilment but prevented from employment by short-sighted economic policies; victims of different kinds of violence, ranging from prostitution to the narcotics trade, and profoundly demeaned”.
We reach out to everyone: in towns in the Western world where we distribute meals to the homeless, in the African and Asian continents where, between forgotten wars and drought, we manage hospitals and healthcare programmes, along the main migration routes where we offer protection and first-aid.
Over the past years, the Sovereign Order of Malta’s action has focussed in particular on the fight against human trafficking. An odious phenomenon in which large-scale international crime is widely involved. A few months ago, we organised in Paris the conference “How Best to Fight the Exploitation of Women in Western Africa and Support their Rehabilitation”, bringing together diplomats, academics, policy makers, representatives of European and Nigerian institutions, Catholic and religious organizations and psychosocial counsellors. In his speech, the Grand Chancellor recalled the Order of Malta’s work in Nigeria where, at the beginning of 2019, with the support of one of our two ambassadors responsible for addressing the scourge of human trafficking, a reception centre was inaugurated in Lagos to offer treatment, protection and rehabilitation for female trafficking victims who return to their country. The Order of Malta’s contribution in such a vital area is also seen in the international community. In Geneva, our mission to the United Nations actively participates in campaigns and initiatives to solicit more effective responses and to raise awareness on slavery, which has reached its highest ever figures today.
I would like to update you, dear ambassadors, on another important Order of Malta project concerning the appreciation of the invaluable work carried out in the field – often in crisis if not war zones – by religious organizations and institutions. These entities are often already present in the area, and thus able to move better than others in crisis scenarios. For many years – for example the 2015 symposium in Geneva and the participation in the 2016 world humanitarian summit in Istanbul – the Order of Malta has been promoting this action and has recently brought out a document listing the key principles of the monotheist religions, such as the sanctity of human life and the protection of places of worship. This Religious Compact, drawn up with the contribution of representatives of the Catholic and Islam religions, will be presented in the coming months. It contains principles and guidelines for the role religious communities and religious institutions can play to help resolve crisis situations, mitigate their effect on the communities involved and improve the supply and distribution of humanitarian aid. The religious dimension should not be considered a problem or a cause of conflict, but on the contrary as an opportunity to overcome these crises. We are convinced that this document can give an important contribution to interfaith dialogue and for better managing and alleviating the consequences of conflict situations on the communities involved, under the banner of values shared by all religions.
It is now evident to all that the added value of religious organizations essentially concerns three elements: firstly, that they, starting with the Order of Malta, are prepared to remain in the area for long periods, thus ensuring a special credibility with local populations; secondly, humanitarian aid set up by the international community generally only involves the material needs of the people affected, whereas the religious institutions also have at heart spiritual needs, often ignored in the major humanitarian interventions; thirdly, that playing the “religion card” helps – especially in social contexts characterized by tradition and manifest religious factors – to find a common denominator with those less willing to accept international aid.
In October, the Sovereign Order of Malta and the Hungarian government signed a memorandum of understanding in Budapest to strengthen cooperation and to respond effectively to the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in crisis zones.
The Order of Malta has a strong presence and action in some of the serious humanitarian crises that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. In the countries bordering Syria we offer healthcare and social assistance programmes to the many refugees. In Lebanon – for months experiencing a political crisis that is having serious repercussions on the country’s economy and social fabric – our national association continues to provide healthcare in the poorest areas through 10 community health centres and various mobile clinics that offer assistance to the Lebanese and refugees without making any discrimination on the basis of religion. In Turkey, we offer inclusion and reintegration programmes for victims of the Syrian war; in northern Iraq, we have in recent years launched major projects for the protection of ethnic-religious groups – such as Christians, Yazidis and the Shabak – and to help women traumatised by war, by the persecutions and violence inflicted in past years by the Islamic State. Along the main migration routes, such as that of the Mediterranean Sea, for over 10 years our medical teams have also been assisting the shipwrecked. Our teams are deployed on board the Italian Navy and Coastguard vessels and continue to operate there thanks to agreements with Italian institutions. This operation and the numerous cooperation agreements signed with the Italian Republic will be the focus of the talks I will have on 13th February next at the Quirinal Palace with President Sergio Mattarella.
This year will be the 900th anniversary of the death of our founder, Blessed Gerard. For such a special occasion, the Order of Malta is organizing an international pilgrimage to the Holy Land in November. A chance to confirm our close ties with this region, where our action remains steadfast. In the city of Bethlehem, Palestine, our Holy Family Hospital remains a point of reference for Palestinian families. With 4,700 births a year, the hospital is the only medical facility in the region with a neonatal intensive care unit offering specialised treatment for babies born prematurely or with congenital diseases.
Since September 2018, our international relief agency has been assisting in Colombia thousands of refugees fleeing from Venezuela. With emergency aid projects, Malteser International helps to give displaced persons better living conditions, and especially medical check-ups and the distribution of food supplements, since malnourishment is rife. Again in the Americas, the Order of Malta’s Cuban Association has carried out another medical mission in the Dominican Republic. A team of 85 doctors, nurses, chemists, physiotherapists and volunteers visited some 1000 people in need of medical assistance. For over 15 years, the Cuban Association has been organizing medical missions with the distribution of free medicines. The next one is scheduled for March.
In El Salvador, the Order’s 8 clinics continue their important healthcare activity for 130,000 patients every year, whereas the Honduran Association has been able to offer a contribution to combatting the dengue emergency in the country.
We are also increasing our presence in the African continent, where the Order is trying to improve the lives of the local communities and to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change. In Northern Uganda, we are managing to bring the necessary “logistics” for exploiting solar energy, so that no less than 100,000 people have been given the possibility of living on their own land. The same applies to the villages of Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the Order’s projects have supplied drinking water, thus enabling many children previously forced to travel miles on foot every day to get water to attend school. Again in the Democratic Republic of Congo the Order of Malta has sent an emergency team to tackle the new Ebola epidemic that broke out in the country last summer. In close cooperation with the Congolese Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, Malteser International promotes hygiene and prevention measures, besides conducting awareness campaigns to contain the epidemic. In Benin – where I will make an official visit in a few days’ time – the Order manages a hospital serving some 5000 families, until now forced to reach distant health centres often along winding and dangerous roads.
In some countries more vulnerable to climate changes, the Order is developing natural disaster preparedness programmes. I am referring in particular to Myanmar, where the frequent monsoon rains are putting the local communities at risk, and to Pakistan, where in the Sindh region our international relief agency has been working in close contact with the local population since 2015 to improve the capacity to react to natural disasters such as flooding, typhoons and earthquakes. Also in Thailand, two serious storms last autumn affected some 400,000 families in many villages. The Order intervened in the emergency by providing medicines and food.
Last month, local volunteers immediately intervened to help victims of the earthquake that struck Albania. They were soon joined by a team of the Order of Malta’s Italian Relief Corps which, with its years of disaster management experience, helped the local authorities to assist displaced persons.
The Order of Malta is making important progress in medical care for the elderly. In Great Britain, there are over 70 nursing homes offering a holistic approach to stimulate patients’ cognitive and physical abilities. In France, in the care home near Paris managed by the Order – that I had the pleasure of visiting a few weeks ago – the use of artificial intelligence is being experimented with robots able to interact with humans, encouraging sociability and intellectual stimulation in the elderly.
The Order of Malta is very attentive to the new forms of exclusion, such as disability, marginalization, loneliness, rare diseases and the digital gap that represent a serious social emergency. These issues will be studied by a special envoy of the Order who will draw up specific practical proposals.
The summer camps for disabled youths continue to attract hundreds of young people from all over the world. The international one held in Germany last August brought together 500 young volunteers and disabled youths coming from 24 countries. An initiative that started in 1983 has developed year after year up to the launch of an Asia-Pacific camp alongside the European one. Our Italian and Australian volunteers are already at work to ensure a week of amusements, cultural events, prayers and friendship to the guests of the two camps that will be held in 2020 in Rome and in Brisbane. Also in Lebanon, the Chabrouh camps continue to be a moment of sharing and also of learning for our young volunteers, who in this way experience the suffering of the people they assist, fully receiving the Christian message that St. Thomas so beautifully expressed: “pain shared is pain halved, joy shared is joy doubled”.
I want here to recall the invaluable work of our young volunteers also during the World Youth Day held at the beginning of last year in Panama. An appointment in which the Order’s volunteers from numerous associations worked together to offer assistance to pilgrims, with specific attention to those needing particular care. A tradition that is also renewed every year in our many pilgrimages, both international and national. For instance, the international Lourdes pilgrimage in which some 7000 members, volunteers and malades participated, but also the Italian ones to Assisi and Loreto in which I personally participated, always with great joy.
During 2019, following the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany, I went on an official visit to Berlin, where I had fruitful exchanges with the federal president and president of the Bundestag. I was also able to visit some of our facilities for immigrants and refugees, giving them the possibility of integrating with the local communities. During the year, I was also received by the heads of state of Slovenia and Bulgaria, with whom we have strong diplomatic relations expressed in numerous social projects. I also had the pleasure of receiving the President of Lithuania and was in turn received at UNESCO precisely in the year in which the 25th anniversary of the Order’s first permanent mission to the United Nations occurred. In my speech at the General Conference, among other things I asked if and how it is possible to reconcile ethical principles and values with international intelligence formulas.
During 2019 we relaunched relations of friendship and collaboration with the government of Equador. The past year has also been an intense one for the Grand Chancellor, who made many visits, including his official one to Peru in August and his recent journey to Australia for the Order of Malta’s ninth Asia-Pacific conference, by now a regular annual appointment testifying to the Order’s growing presence in those regions.
It is certain that the year just passed has been rich with engagements also for our government. As you know, the Chapter General was held last May and the results have given an important sign of continuity, enabling us to pursue the delicate process of constitutional reform that includes, among other things, a particular emphasis on the spiritual formation of our professed members.
Dear Ambassadors, it is only through cooperation and constructive dialogue based on the principles of respect of human dignity can we help to put an end to the crises, to the violence and to give a better future to the new generations. This is the inspiration of Order of Malta’s mission, following the example of St. Basil depicted on the altar of the church of St. Mary on the Aventine, the jewel by Giovan Battista Piranesi, returned to its ancient splendour thanks to the major restoration works completed at the beginning of last year.
In concluding my speech, I would like to thank each of you for the important contribution you give every day to preventing and reducing the vulnerability of our world and to promoting at the same time the shared values of peace and coexistence.
I wish you, your families and the countries you represent a happy 2020.