The Dimensions of the World
In the pavilions of the Conference Center, the great international themes, and the witness
of those who work for the good of man
by Roberto Fontolan
The photos are shocking: ankles chained, wrists even “enstoned”–bound in stone and wood handcuffs. Then a human group that looks squarely at you, a bit threateningly, a bit questioningly, colors and faces that seem taken from Spielberg’s Amistad. From here unfolds the astonishing story of Gregoire and his association of Saint Camille. On the Ivory Coast (recently the association has begun working in Benin as well), there is no place for those with “mental” problems (of any kind, small or big), or better, their families don’t know what to do with them, and “cede” the ill people to others: villages or groups that, in turn, entrust them to the forest, a prison under the open sky. Tied to trees or rocks, for years, exposed to the rain or the sun (and you can imagine the rest), they “live” waiting for the end. Then Gregoire arrived, a tire repairer, a Christian who, during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, was reached by something, a leap of consciousness, a shock, an idea. From that time on, ten thousand have been saved (yes, ten thousand). The small exhibition, set at the far end of the Meeting, is illustrated by the psychiatrist from Friuli, Marco Bertoli, who has been helping Gregoire for some time now. The exhibit has been set up strikingly, with pieces of artwork, a video, and an authentic prison trunk.
Certainly, the Meeting’s journey beyond the Italian borders is composed of great encounters, of leaders and important names, but the architecture supporting the stage is provided by stories like that of Gregoire, or of the missionaries of the Fraternity of Saint Charles Borromeo, who attracted hundreds and hundreds of people, several times a day, telling about their commitment in Siberia, Paraguay, or the United States, or of Sister Maria from Kenya, who struggles incessantly against the practice of infibulation.
In seven days, the Meeting lets you travel around the world. In the overwhelming avalanche of figures, images, books, witnesses, stands, a few important stages can be noted: Development, War and Peace, Islam and the Mediterranean, Europe and the United States. But the rule of the Meeting is well known: you don’t understand anything, unless it’s through an encounter.
And therefore, here is the Zerbini’s story (c.f., Traces June 2005), of Brazil with its social dramas. They direct the Movement of Landless Workers. They began by seeking land for the country people who had none, then they dealt with the questions of housing and healthcare, then school and community life, while “something was always missing, still something; we had responded to certain needs, but it wasn’t enough.” One of the great revelations of this Meeting was that AVSI performed a miracle, through Brazil, again, with the Salvador de Bahia project : “converting” the World Bank and Italian Cooperation to support these efforts in Brazil. The latter, to put it bluntly, believes so strongly in the Meeting that it set up a stand of displays “inferior only to those of the Companionship of Works” said Giuseppe Deodato, Director of Italian Cooperation, proudly and amiably. Africa has also returned frequently to the Rimini pavilions: wars, AIDs, corruption, and the project promoted by Medicine and the Person, called “An hour of work that changes lives.”
Speaking of Islam…
The complicated chapter of Islam had as its protagonist the Assistant Editor of Corriere della Sera (Italy’s prominent newspaper), Magdi Allam, and as its epicenter an encounter with the curious title that focused on “daily life” in a religion that in many aspects remains mysterious. Magdi has been a solid friend for a long time. The surprises came from a few exceptional individuals, like the Islam scholar, Abu Zyad, who proposed the great, delicate question of “literalism”: Can the Koran be interpreted or not? For him, obviously yes, otherwise the destiny of Islam would be closed in the madrasses and in fundamentalism. Also, the young Khalid Chaouki: “I can’t understand how in the name of Islam one can conceive the desire for the death of oneself and of others,” an idea that he admits is difficult to express even in the Italian Islamic communities. Living with and in Islam was also the topic of the painful storytelling of the women writers gathered in a book by the Italian Islam scholar, Valentina Colombo. She warns that there isn’t a race of Arab women, but living persons (even if sometimes they are hidden behind veils) with their concrete problems, and that we can and must intervene. An example was provided by Suad Sbai, who directs the Italian Association of Moroccan Women. “When there was the last government grant of indemnity for residence visas, many men did not enable allow their wives to obtain one, with the excuse that it wasn’t needed, because they should stay at home.” These themes also surfaced during the meeting with the Interior Minister, Beppe Pisanu, and the European Commissioner, Franco Frattini, during which the nail driven in last year was hammered further in: the Mediterranean, a strategy that must be found again, a policy (a real one, not the self-referential and self-determining politics of petty politicians) that must be built, but knowing that it’s not necessary to start from scratch, for alongside the invasions, there were reciprocal exchanges and enrichments. So, Oriana Fallaci should be read together with the great Slav writer Predag Matvejecic, looking at the Mediterranean as a “mestizo,” or “mixed-blood” sea, to use a term of certain notoriety here in Rimini. Today, there is diffidence and conflict, but there are also projects between the European and the African-Middle Eastern shores, and friendships that flower: the CDO (Companionship of Works) in Jerusalem, that puts together Israeli Arabs, Jews, and Palestinians; the activism of regions like Sicily or of realities such as Unioncamere; the presence in Rimini of the Bishop of Tunisia, Fouad Twal, soon to transfer to Jerusalem, and the friends of Brescia who have strong bonds with Tunisia. So, the Meeting offers the frame, or the net, to put it better, for a new and overall political élan.
And speaking of Iraq…
A short distance from the attempt to understand Islam more in depth, there are the discussions and analyses on the wars that, wrong or right, involve Islam, terrorism and its global threat, and Iraq–Iraq that is bleeding, that is tenaciously battling for the freedom to exist. (It recalls a bit the struggle of the Armenians, today certainly more fortunate, because their tremendous past is not covered over. There was a beautiful meeting with Marco Tosatti and Antonia Arslan.) There were testimonies of the journalists Toni Capuozzo, Monica Maggioni, and Gianni Riotta against the risk of indifference. The high point of the Meeting’s “foreign policy” was the arrival of the Baghdad Minister of Foreign Affairs, Al Zebari, and the Afghan one, Abdullah, propitiated by the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gianfranco Fini. Not a diplomatic round table, for once, not obligatory declarations, but a piece of the East, thousands and thousands of people, dragged along, as it were, for two hours within the fire and dust and bombs, placed side by side with the men and women of those two countries. “Stay with us,” the ministers cried, “remain close to us.” See what we suffer; the freedom we are seeking is your own; it is the greatest good that we lack. War as reality over war as a newspaper headline.
Beyond the ocean
… and Mr. Anderson, what is freedom? The question is posed unexpectedly, not taken for granted at all, even in the Meeting on freedom, for the most illustrious American present in Rimini, Carl Anderson, the supreme head of the Knights of Columbus, whose photo sprung up in the more attentive newspapers during the days of Rimini. Every year, the Knights collect between 130 and 150 million dollars to give to charity. It is the biggest international Catholic organization providing service to families, with a million and seven hundred thousand members. Anderson was at the head of the American team, which included Kenneth Ciongoli, President of the Organization of Italian Americans, and Joseph Weiler, well known to the community of constitutionalists and to those who worked in vain for the recognition of Europe’s Christian roots in its constitution. He, a Jew, wrote a book for us, not to be missed. In the evening, he wanted to chat a bit. “You know, in America my colleagues criticize me because I come here, for my friendship with CL. But I don’t give a damn–I listen, they[of CL] listen to me, we treat each other well, we get some projects going… This is how things should be done, and this is how we’ll move ahead.” The group of Americans could not have excluded the Puerto Rican Msgr. Albacete, and the America-based Italian Marco Bardazzi, and naturally Jonathan and Riro. The link between America and Europe was provided by Ireland’s primate, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who told about the difficulties (“In certain Dublin parishes, Mass attendance is down to one percent”) and glories of his country (the evangelization of Europe promoted by the Irish saints; the economic success of recent years; the disarmament of the IRA.) From other parts of Europe there were the Spanish ex-Premier Aznar and the President of the European Popular Party, Poettering, as well as the Romanian Bishop, Bercea, ordained in secret, who recalled for a moved public the wounded heart of our recent past. Today, it is almost hard to remember how the world was when the Meeting was born, 26 years ago. If it has changed, if it changes a bit every day, if every year we ourselves change a bit, if every time a bit more hope is added, I like to think that it is also the merit of this last week of August that many of us spend in Rimini, which is not the first place in the world where we would like to spend it.