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ROME – “Terms such as identity, belonging, democracy, rights, do not sound the same in all cities,” said an Italian bishop on Thursday, during the second day of a five-day meeting on the Mediterranean Sea as a “frontier of peace.”
There are some 100 delegates, between bishops and mayors, coming from 20 countries of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and cities as diverse as Marseilles, Rabat, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Baghdad.
Though the Russian invasion of Ukraine loomed large over the second day of the Feb. 23-27 encounter in the Italian city of Florence, at the center of the gathering is the migrant question.
With the symposium, the Italian Bishops Conference and the mayor of Florence wanted politicians and prelates to engage in dialogue on finding a common ground for a problem that has become a challenge to all those touched by the shores of the sea that Pope Francis has dubbed the mare mortum – “sea of the dead” – due to the hundreds of thousands who have drowned in recent years fleeing war, persecution and famine.
Bishop Antonino Raspanti of Acireale, and vice-president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, said religious and politicians have come to ask themselves if the differences between countries “can become a wealth, a mutual enrichment, and with the right balance, become an authentic exchange of experiences and initiatives that can enrich everyone.”
Some answers have already emerged, the prelate argued, with Christian communities, particularly Catholic ones, being asked to continue their efforts to open their doors to all and bringing together people to aid in the integration of migrants with initiatives such as soup kitchens, schools and medical facilities.
The role of cities in achieving peace
“These are extraordinary and unique days: For the first time so many bishops are meeting in Florence after many years and for the first time in the same days the mayors of the most important cities of the Mediterranean will meet,” said the mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, opening the encounter.
Speaking in the famous Palazzo Vecchio – where they will meet with Pope Francis on Sunday – the mayor called the gathering a “great opportunity” for dialogue between secular and religious authorities, “uniting cities to unite nations.”
“We mayors do not have armies and we do not build walls, but we design bridges and help citizens to move, children to study, young people to work,” he said. “May the beauty of this city, a beauty that is not sterile, not self-referential, inspire your hearts and enlighten all minds.”
Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, archbishop of Perugia and president of the Italian bishops, argued that “our peoples, our cities and our religious communities can play an extraordinary role: They can push them toward a horizon of peace and fraternity.”
At this moment – said the cardinal – “while disturbing winds of war are blowing from Ukraine,” countries “do not seem to have the strength, in the face of the eventual good will of their leaders, to overcome the mechanism structured by the relations of force.”
“Never before has La Pira’s lesson on the role of cities in the world in achieving world peace resounded in our ears as it does today,” he said, referring to Giorgio La Pira, an Italian politician who served as mayor of Rome and led the Christian Democratic Party. A lay Dominicans, he participated in the assembly that wrote the Italian Constitution following World War II and was known for being a tireless champion of peace and human rights.
Bassetti asked, quoting Salvatore Quasimodo, a great friend of La Pira’s, “Is it realistic to think that stone and slingshot can still be the method used to regulate life on our planet, after about 70 years of humanity being placed under the sword of Damocles of a potential nuclear hecatomb?”
(A hecatomb was a fiery sacrifice of cattle to the gods in ancient Greece.)
The current international system, he argued, does not help the growth and integral development of the Mediterranean peoples, as they are inserted in a geopolitical that greatly influences their internal life, economic development and does not always favor respect for human rights.
“There are now many crises involving the Mediterranean,” he said, listing conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East, the Maghreb and the Black Sea which are historically, culturally, politically and also spiritually an integral part of the Mediterranean. Hence the challenge of the summit: “To give back to our Churches and our societies the Mediterranean breath; to rediscover the authentic soul that has united us for centuries; to promote the reconstruction of a place of dialogue and peace.”
Nations, and cities, need religious
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi also attended the event, and he used his remarks to thank religious leaders for their role in forging a lasting peace.
“Religious authorities play a fundamental role in building a culture of dialogue and listening between different cultures and faiths,” he said. “Today, as in the past, we feel the need for your good work, for education in love, which represents the essence of faith. Love for oneself, without which there is no respect for human dignity. Love for one’s own culture, which does not allow intolerance, but is a stimulus to curiosity. Love for one’s community, which is expressed in solidarity and care for others.”
Between 1958 and 1964, the Mediterranean Colloquies were held in Florence, born from the conviction that the nations bordering the sea had a “common destiny,” said Draghi.
“That dialogue between the religions of Abraham – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – was necessary for the maintenance of peace; and that a common Mediterranean culture could serve as the basis for a ‘Mediterranean human order, founded on justice and happiness’,” he said, urging participants to develop that vision starting from the cities, increasingly the center of life in the Mediterranean region.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma