The following interview is part of a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace, who draw their inspiration and often direction from their faith. This series, which also included an interview with Ruth Messinger of AJWS, is based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall, as part of policy explorations for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. The full interviews are here.
You serve as Director for International Affairs for the Community of Sant'Egidio. How did you first become involved with the Community ?
In 1973, I was a 15-year-old high school student, newly arrived in Rome from Brussels, where my father had worked. A small student group at my school invited me to join them in service in an outlying, very poor district. As a newcomer, I was happy to find friends but enjoyed even more the work we did. The children of the new, often illiterate immigrants faced many obstacles and we were able to help them in different ways. I became part of the student community and enjoyed that life. We prayed together each day before setting out for our work. We had long, intense discussions about how to live the Gospel, and how to bring about change. We were convinced that even young people and students could make a difference.
Then, while I was at university and afterwards, I worked with what we had come to call the Community, still in Rome's poor areas, focusing then on adolescents and young adults. I became what you in the United States might call a community organizer.
What was the Community like at that time?
We led quite ordinary, secular lives in many respects. Sant'Egidio was not born within the Catholic Church -- we were an autonomous entity, part of the Church but with our own identity. We called ourselves simply "the Community" and had not articulated our mission. We just wanted to be together, bound by our social work and by prayer.
Then in 1974, the Cardinal of Rome called a meeting about the state of the city. We, together with several Catholic groups, were part of the discussion. It was the first time the official Church had met with groups like ours. The meeting prompted us to sharpen our identity and to give ourselves a name. We were small, with a few hundred members focused in high schools and universities, working in the poorer suburbs, centered around tiny chapels that new immigrants built in their neighborhoods because there was no Church infrastructure there. We took the name Sant'Egidio from the church where we prayed each evening.
Then what happened?
The Community began to grow, first in other Italian cities. Someone would come from another city, join our daily evening prayers, then join the Community. Step by step, community by community, we grew. Today there are communities in nearly every country in Europe, some quite large, others rather small.
The first community in Africa was in Mozambique. We had read about the terrible civil war and wanted to help. Then, in 1977, the Bishop of Beira visited Rome. His story of the church's travails, pressured by the Marxist regime and helpless in the face of violence all around, moved us to start work there with the poor. We got involved in mediating specific problems with Mozambican authorities, and slowly, our contacts with different groups expanded. But we came to believe that we could do nothing serious to help unless we were willing to get involved in the war. And, with no special background, we got involved in conflict resolution.
We found surprisingly little interest in ending the war and few offers of help. Everyone saw the situation as hopeless because Mozambique's was a war by proxy in the bipolar world at that time. People thought that the only way to progress was to solve South Africa's problems and end apartheid. As we got involved, we realized that the focus on outside causes was exaggerated; the war was also grounded in more local, Mozambican tensions. Through the bishop, we got in touch with guerrilla leaders and began to tackle the realities of the conflict from many angles. In 1990, we convinced the guerilla leaders and the government to meet in Rome.
It was initially far from obvious that we could play a mediator role. This kind of civil society involvement in conflict resolution had no precedents. We began step by step. After the first Rome meeting, we were asked to play a continuing role. Thus, we began 27 months of negotiations in 11 separate sessions, culminating in the comprehensive peace agreement in October 1992 that brought an end to Mozambique's war, and the beginning of democracy.
What was Sant'Egidio's approach in Mozambique and what was your role?
I was one of several people who were involved throughout. Above all we talked to people. Thus, we came to understand both the inside outs of the crisis and what was in peoples' minds. The Mozambique conflict involved people who were fighting but who knew each other very well. Conflicts among brothers who feel betrayed may be the most difficult to resolve.
This long, patient process was possible for us because at the same time we continued our normal lives, as individuals and as a community. We still served in poor communities and met for prayers. The negotiations evolved in tune with these ordinary routines of life and people on both sides became involved with each other. Many strong friendships were born during this period.
Mozambique's success generated an energy for peace. We sensed that we could engage in similar processes in other places. We saw that we, ordinary people coming from ordinary ways of life and communities, could work for peace.
Boutros Boutros Ghali, then Secretary General of the United Nations, called our approach the "Italian formula," blending government and non-government peacemaking. We were able to cultivate contacts and bring different people into the discussions. We did not need to exclude anyone who might contribute. After resisting politics in our early years, we saw a role for ourselves in the politics of working for peace.
What is your main work today?
I coordinate the international relations group, about 20 people who work especially on conflict resolution. We are always involved in many different situations, maybe 15 right now. I also have a regular job. All members of the Community work as volunteers.
People who are fighting seek us out, usually for specific help. Sant'Egidio is non-threatening; we have no military power and power politics is not part of our character or approach. We set no prior conditions. All we ask and expect is that the different parties to the conflict see themselves as partners in the search for peace.
Above all we can wait. We can wait for the chief of a militia group to come out of bush. We can wait because we have other things to do, and do not depend on this work to exist. So we can try and try and try again. Official and professional organizations need quick, tangible success to survive. But, especially in these internal conflicts, one must be patient and know how to wait and wait and wait. Patience is not only a virtue and a moral attribute: It is a tool. In northern Uganda, our first contact was in 1996, but the real opportunity came 10 years later. We waited over three years in Burundi. It often takes months, even years, to get a first meeting. Professionals can rarely invest that time. Many peace meetings fail because someone forced success with a threatening mediation. This simply does not work, especially in internal conflicts where you have to listen for a long time, hearing the same story several times. You have to be humble, and not think or suggest that you already know the solution.
Most internal conflicts have personal dimensions. They start with people, fueled by personalities, personal grudges and passions. We have the same people working on a conflict for years, so they can build the trust that is essential to overcome personal tensions. It is rare to find someone ready to reach an agreement immediately. We understand the broader dimensions, like resource competition. But conflicts rarely if ever start because of resources. You need to focus on the point at which people take up arms and decide to start a war. That's a very human decision. What matters is the way people live, issues of identity and culture. We focus on what is going on inside the people who fight, their real wounds. The story of what happened long ago is more important than what immediately triggered the conflict.